30 October 2006

Elementary societies

Social capital in the form of cooperation and trust is an integral part of all societies and economies. Some of them may even thrive on the notion that cooperation and trust are its basic foundation. This notion is typical of small communities like tribes and villages rather than modern metropolitan cities; and, I guess, is more a characteristic of the underdeveloped or developing economies than the prosperous ones.

This phenomenon can be seen today in the adivasis (ancient tribes of India) who still live by themselves in self-sustaining self-reliant communities, governed by the policies of their own tribe/community. Everyone knows everyone else in the tribe/community, and everything is done to contribute to the general well-being of the tribe/community. Within the adivasis, the notion of selfishness is almost non-existent.

It’s an elementary form of society/economy, carried forward from pre-historic times when there were no formal policies or laws or institutions guiding tribes or people. Cooperation and trust were the only means of survival and prosperity for these tribes/communities.

Although informal in nature, the norms of social interaction, joint effort and governance adopted by these tribes/communities were quite effective, and governed these tribes/communities efficiently. The tribes/communities prospered to become great civilisations and, today, form the societies and economies of which we are a part.

However, over hundreds of thousands of years, societies/economies have become more complex. Goods which were once freely available have become scarce, and competition has become a driving force behind economies and human behaviour. Nations have been formed, politically demarcating geographies, human populations, cultures and ideologies. Laws and institutions have been established for governance; while religion and systems of family/community education have assumed the role of instilling moral order.

28 October 2006

Social capital and the moral order

Where does moral order come from? Do we really have, as Marc Hauser proposes, an automatic ability to distinguish right from wrong? Is our moral order really a function of our biological evolution? What are the implications of a breakdown in the moral order in a society?

Some seven years earlier, in his book, ‘The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order’, Johns Hopkins professor Francis Fukuyama had suggested something similar: that human beings were biologically driven to establish moral values. That these values evolved from the ground up, rather than being imposed by government or organised religion.

If this theory is true, does it mean that the growing corruption that worries Indian youths today (see my previous post) is really a reflection of themselves?

Professor Fukuyama’s book did not mention India. It occupied itself with the United States and Western society, specifically with their development in the past 50 years. However, professor Fukuyama did talk about social capital as a key building block of modern society, something that permitted cooperation and trust within its members. He suggested that as social capital depleted in a society, so did cooperation and trust within its members. This, in turn, resulted in an increase in family break-ups, drug use, crime, and other anti-social behaviour.

Could this theory be true? If social pathology was an indicator – a measure, perhaps – of overall social trust, what meaning did it have for the level of corruption in India today?

[Professor Fukuyama defined social capital as “a set of informal values or norms shared among members of a group that permits cooperation among them. If members of the group come to expect that others will behave reliably and honestly, they will come to trust one another.”]

26 October 2006


Sometime ago, as I stepped out of a retail store in Mumbai, I was confronted by a group of college students who wanted to interview me on the growing corruption in our country.

I’m afraid I gave them all the wrong answers: that corruption is a fact of life; that it’s everywhere, and not confined only to India; that money corrupts, power corrupts, sex corrupts, materialism corrupts, our greed corrupts; that the situation is likely to remain so despite our efforts to reduce it; that I had no idea how corruption could be managed apart from public awareness and action.

Looking back, I feel ashamed.

How could I have been so insensitive to those students and their desire to bring about a better life for everyone? Isn’t corruption a social evil we could all do without? At least, those students were attempting to address the issue of corruption in India. With all my maturity and experience, I was doing absolutely nothing about it.

If those students could not rely on the support of elders like me, who could they turn to? What kind of social and moral order was I presenting to those students? Has corruption permeated to such levels of morality that people like me actually give our consent to corruption by not challenging it? Does that mean my moral values need re-evaluation as well?

I believe people, individually or in groups, create social and moral orders for themselves as a natural process. I believe they create these orders on common shared values that build societies and civilisations. I believe India is a prime example of this, and she has a 5,000-year-old heritage to prove it.

I believe, in recent years particularly, the media in India has helped broadcast these common shared values to millions of people across the country, accelerating India’s growth. I believe this has resulted in positive shifts in values within families, within communities, at work, and between partners.

Yet, I see a breakdown of the family structure that India was so proud of. I see a hedonistic individualism replacing common shared values. I see ‘personal gains’ as the driving force behind the new social and moral order. And, for the weak, I see apathy as its greatest corrupting influence.

24 October 2006

Morality: a collective possession

According to recent theories, such as those proposed by Harvard professor Marc Hauser, the human capacity to make moral distinctions – right from wrong, good from evil – is programmed into the brain.

Across the globe, people follow the same basic rules of morality – a limited set of rules which professor Hauser calls ‘moral grammar’. However, professor Hauser cautions us, the actual moral choices of the individual person also depends on how the culture (in which the individual grows up in) uses this grammar, as well as on the emotions the person experiences when he sees others contradict what he has learnt to believe is good.

Could this mean morality is something we have as an existential possession? An inheritance from our forefathers that guides the way we live our lives today? Could morality, like language or ethnic identity, be a sort of collective possession of groups of people, binding them into socio-cultural orders?

If so, then morality may be a key factor in the construction and maintenance of these communities and individual cultures. That might explain why family values, the law, the education system, the interpretation and practice of religion, the media vary from one culture to another.

If we study films as representations of culture and morality, we find many differences between India and the rest of the world. Indian films do not explicitly show on-screen kissing or sex. Topics like homosexuality or incest are taboo. Even within India, at a regional level, there are clear differences. For instance, films from the state of Tamil Nadu in South India are permissive, showing a lot of skin on their female actors; while films from Kerala, a state next door, are more modest, preferring to stay away from any overt display of skin.

Why is this so? Perhaps, morality is as much a consequence of a community’s sense of self, cultural upbringing and existential well-being – a collective possession, so to speak – as it is a universal feature of programming in the human brain.

22 October 2006

The fact of the matter

Is there such a thing as a moral fact?

There are facts that prove things to be true – at least as we know them now. For instance, all things fall due to gravity. The Earth is round and not flat as it was once thought to be. A liquid takes the shape of the container it is held in. There are 60 minutes to the hour. Sugar is sweet to taste. Men are different from women in their physical appearance.

Evidence can be provided as proof of such facts; and rational people accept such evidence, proof and facts in their daily lives. For, these facts guide our actions.

However, when it comes to morals, life becomes complicated. Facts are no longer facts – measurable quantities or proven axioms – but issues guided, or influenced, by our personal interest, our appetite for or aversion to risk, and strategic considerations with a view to a larger or long-term goal.

Therein lies the rub. For example, even if we know that causing intentional harm to others is morally wrong, we may still decide to act upon it.

Although a child knows he should not tell a lie, he may still do so to protect himself or a friend from punishment. Although an adult knows that he should not tell a lie, he may still do so in order to avoid hurting others, or to avoid creating an ugly scene at a specific moment, or to take advantage of a situation.

How does the child or the adult take such decisions – sometimes instantaneous, almost instinctive, decisions – on morality and stray away from, or even violate, social or parental teaching, knowing full well the facts of the matter?

Faced with a moral question, people, both young and old, apply their minds from the point of view of what they believe is the nature of the situation at hand – in other words, the facts of the matter – and make up their minds, sometimes instantly, to act in a specific manner.

The process of making up their minds – and, in turn, the moral outcome – is, of course, guided, or influenced, by their personal interest, their appetite for or aversion to risk, and strategic considerations with a view to a larger or long-term goal.

Then there’s the issue of human instinct, as well as the theory of moral grammar that Harvard professor Marc Hauser talks about.

The fact of the matter about what is right or wrong, about what morally ought or ought not to be done, or how people will act in a given situation, are not easy to determine, nor explain.

[Citation: ‘Moral Realism and Cross-Cultural Normative Diversity’ – a paper by Edouard Machery, Daniel Kelly, Stephen P. Stich]

20 October 2006

Moral choices

Are there principles in life that teach us how to differentiate between good and evil? If there are such principles, are they evolutionary – genetically programmed in us – and remain common for all of us on this planet? Or, do they change from one culture to another?

Some sociologists, psychologists, evolutionary biologists and anthropologists – like Harvard professor Marc Hauser – believe there is a universal ‘moral grammar’ underlying all specific moral norms that different cultures embrace. For example, everywhere, people recognise universal values such as fairness, responsibility and gratitude – and oppose cruelty, unfairness and oppression. This ‘moral grammar’ is programmed into our brains as a part of our evolutionary process.

Moral choices depend on how each culture uses this basic ‘moral grammar’. If we reward those brains that mean well for our culture and us, we are likely to create civilisations which promise a bright and peaceful future.

18 October 2006

Once upon a time...

Once upon a time, when man had just evolved from apes to take on the human form, there was no concept of good or evil, right or wrong. The concept of moral or immoral behaviour did not exist in man’s consciousness at that time. Man acted on impulse, with no thought for the consequences of his actions… on others.

Gradually, man began to identify with himself; then with his family, his community, his tribe. His conscience was awakened. He became conscious of doing good, as different from doing harm, to others. He began to understand that some of his actions were right; some wrong. He began to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil.

And man understood that right or wrong, good or evil, moral or immoral behaviour are concepts… each depending on the other for its existence.

16 October 2006

The important thing to do

It’s all right to let millions of people die from starvation, AIDS, pestilence and war – or a combination of these – while we enjoy an easy life, consuming more and more to satisfy our inner desires. After all, it’s not directly affecting us. Not at the moment. And, the way things are, it’s not likely to do so, soon. So, let’s carry on with our lives just the way we have been.

Or, maybe we should stop and listen to people like Bono (see my earlier post) and a thousand others who campaign against life’s inequalities – for others, not themselves. Maybe we, too, should have the courage and the motivation to step up to do something about what we feel is not right in this world. To think of others, and not just ourselves. Simply because, as human beings, it’s an important thing to do.

Philosophers, historians, social scientists and religions have debated over morals for centuries. And, we are still left with our own conscience. What may be unfair to us may not be so to others. Even the degree of unfairness in a specific situation – the gravity of it – may be debated. This measuring of a situation’s unfairness may divide us into those who act against unfairness and those who don’t. Or, into those who believe someone else should take action, but not us. Or, into those who intend to take action – but, perhaps, not right away.

Then again, what about our feelings? Our passions or our compassion towards another human being or another life? Or, this planet? What about our anger or our excitement at seeing something unfair or cruel happening right before our eyes? What of that? What do we do then?

What is right? What is wrong? How do we decide right from wrong? And, what do we do after that? These questions may dog our minds and take away our sleep at night, but they come later. Much later. What’s important is what we do before our powers of reasoning cloud our minds against unfairness or injustice or cruelty or suffering. Perhaps these should be motivation enough for us to take action.

14 October 2006

When will Indian brands turn (RED)?

This is an excerpt from The (RED)™ Manifesto:

“All things being equal, they are not.

As first-world consumers we have tremendous power. What we collectively choose to buy, or not to buy, can change the course of life and history on this planet.

(RED) is that simple an idea. And that powerful. Now, you have a choice. There are (RED) credit cards, (RED) phones, (RED) shoes, (RED) fashion brands. And no, this does not mean they are all red in colour. Although some are.

If you buy a (RED) product or sign up for a (RED) service, at no cost to you, a (RED) company will give some of its profits to buy and distribute anti-retroviral medicine to our brothers and sisters dying of AIDS in Africa.

We believe that when consumers are offered this choice, and the products meet their needs, they will choose (RED). And when they choose (RED) over non-(RED), then more brands will choose to become (RED) because it will make good business sense to do so. And more lives will be saved.

(RED) is not a charity. It is simply a business model.”

Today AIDS is a preventable, treatable disease. Yet 5,500 people are dying from AIDS in Africa everyday. (RED) hopes to address this issue and save lives in Africa.

(RED) is an idea started by Bono (of Irish rock band U2) and Bobby Shriver, Chairman of DATA, earlier this year, to engage consumers and the corporate world with its marketing prowess and funds to fight AIDS. The campaign intends to raise awareness and money for The Global Fund by teaming up with the world’s most iconic brands to produce (PRODUCT)RED branded products. A percentage of each (PRODUCT)RED product sold is given to The Global Fund. The money will help women and children affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa.

The parentheses, or brackets, are used to indicate ‘the embrace’. Each company that becomes (RED) places its logo in this embrace and is then elevated to the power of red. Thus, the name (PRODUCT)RED.

Yesterday, 13 October 2006, (RED) partners Gap, Converse, Motorola and Apple launched their (PRODUCT) RED™ products in stores in the United States and online. (RED) is supported by various celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Penelope Cruz, Don Cheadle, among others.

In India today, the story of HIV/AIDS is as serious, if not worse. The following report is from AVERT, an international AIDS charity working in India:

“India is one of the largest and most heavily populated countries in the world, with over one billion inhabitants. Of this number, at least five million are currently living with HIV. According to some estimates, India has a greater number of people living with HIV than any other nation in the world.

HIV emerged later in India than it did in many other countries, but this has not limited its impact. Infection rates soared throughout the 1990s, and have increased further in recent years. The crisis continues to deepen, as it becomes clearer that the epidemic is affecting all sectors of Indian society, not just the groups – such as sex workers and truck drivers – that it was originally associated with.

In a country where poverty, illiteracy and poor health are rife, the spread of HIV presents a daunting challenge.

There is disagreement over how many people are currently living with HIV in India. UNAIDS (the United Nations agency that co-ordinates global efforts to fight HIV) estimates that there were 5.7 million people in India living with HIV by the end of 2005, suggesting that India has a higher number of people living with HIV than any other country in the world.”

What India needs today is a project similar to (RED). Indian brands and consumers need to come together to address the issue of HIV/AIDS and help rid – or, at least, reduce – the threat of this disease that is spreading across our country.

Will they? If not now, when?

13 October 2006

India’s quiet revolution

It’s a shame that many in India think advertising is a bad thing. That it’s distasteful. That, being at the cutting edge of capitalism, advertising is tool to make people buy what they don’t need. That India, struggling with her poverty and her low per capita income, can do without it. This belief, a fallout from our pre-Independence days when Indians had a negative disposition towards anything British, is partly responsible for the poor growth of regional-language newspapers in India. Advertisements in newspapers were considered such a British capitalist thing… to be discarded and trodden upon.

And so, for a long time in India, English newspapers walked away with all the advertising money, leaving regional-language newspapers to flounder like fish out of water. Printing machinery supporting Indian language scripts were difficult to find. Cost of newsprint was high (Indian-language newspapers consumed more newsprint as the scripts took up more space for the same amount of copy). And the distribution channel – the newspaper hawkers – took away a fair share of the income. Income from circulation was too little to sustain a regional-language newspaper on its own.

The central and state governments stepped in to rescue the situation and, despite criticism against them, became large advertisers for India’s regional-language newspapers. Leading the show was central government’s Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP), which still contributes a substantial amount to regional-language advertising, with individual state governments joining in in support of their own vernacular newspapers. Even then, it wasn’t much. Post-Independence, the bulk of advertising spend came from commercial advertisers; and they believed that people with purchasing power could only be reached through English newspapers and magazines. This belief ruled advertising spends in India until recently.

In the eighties, with offset printing technology supporting their enterprise, regional-language newspapers and magazines finally saw a turn in the tide. They could print more, faster and cheaper than ever before; and distribute their publications in the rural markets of India where English newspapers had no presence. With over 70% of India’s population living in rural India, advertisers saw this as an opportunity, re-designing and re-packaging their existing products, or creating new ones, to address the needs of the rural markets… spending good money on advertising in vernacular publications. Circulation figures for regional-language newspapers soared and, with it, advertising revenues.

The Indian-language newspapers gained prominence, fulfilling a dual role. They covered local news, incorporating the culture of the region and connecting with their readers. At the same time, they brought national (and international) news and information about products and services into the household of the rural Indian. Both regional/local as well as national advertisers woke up to this fact and increased their advertising spends in vernacular newspapers. According to Aroon Purie of India Today, in the Frames 2006 conference organised by FICCI in March this year, there is a heavy growth in vernacular publications, with Hindi publications growing at 68% and Telegu publications growing at 63%.

However, all was not hunky-dory for the vernacular publications. At the same conference, Jacob Matthew of Malayala Manorama stated that, during 2002-04, although advertising contributed 60% of revenues, most vernacular newspapers dependent on revenues from circulation as well – some even for their survival. Apparently, of the total advertising pie of Rs.10,900 crores for print advertising in India (from a PWC-FICCI study which was launched in Frames 2006), English publications still cornered 50% of advertising revenues. Perhaps, we haven’t got over our English hangover yet.

Nevertheless, a 50% chunk of the print advertising revenue pie is a huge gain for regional-language newspapers. With growth pegged anywhere between 12-16%, it’s likely to overtake spends in English publications very soon. I’d say, this is nothing short of a revolution.

[Here’s more data from Frames 2006: S K Arora, Secretary of the Information & Broadcasting Ministry, commented that print readership in the urban sector was flattening out, but there were superb gains in the rural market. These gains were coming from approx. 47,000 Indian-language publications, of which 22,000 were in Hindi and the rest in 90 regional languages. (Apparently there are 9,000 English publications in India.)]

11 October 2006

The story has just begun

Very few people can read in English in India. My guess is, of the literate population (people who can sign their names – approx. 2 out of 3 Indians), it’s 5%. That would mean around 40 million (give or take 5 million) people know English well enough to read English newspapers in India. Still, the English newspaper industry is flourishing, garnering a substantial part of the advertising revenues. That’s reason enough for several Western media companies to invest in India (see my previous post ‘India assures a future for print journalism in English’).

This bias towards English newspapers was, perhaps, expected. The issue is language: India uses 18 different languages in 10 different scripts, much of it distributed geographically. No single Indian language can reach out to all of India. Indian-language newspapers have always suffered from this. Moreover, printing technology had responded rather late to India’s need for available scripts. There was a lack of mechanical typesetting facility for composing in Indian languages. Yet again, the problem was expected.

Indian languages are complex, with many more letters to their alphabet (a dozen or so more) compared to English or the Roman script. Then, the shapes of the letters created a dilemma, sometimes with two or more letters combining to create another letter-form. If this isn’t enough, Indian language scripts use space both above and below the line, taking up more vertical space (on an average, Indian scripts take up 15% more space than Roman scripts while setting a block of text – i.e. slightly fewer words into a given space Roman scripts). Although hot-metal casting of type in the Roman alphabet was in regular use by the 1880s, it took another 50 years to perfect a similar technology for Indian languages.

In spite of these drawbacks, India did have its language newspapers as early as 1821 when Raja Rammohan Roy in Calcutta published the first-known Indian newspaper in Bengali called Sangbad Kaumudi. This newspaper, unfortunately, is long forgotten. In 1822, Fardoonjee Marzban in Bombay published Mumbai Samachar in Gujarati, which is published even today, making it the earliest Indian newspaper on record today. The first English newspaper in Bombay was printed much earlier in 1777 by Rustomji Keshaspathi (I’m not sure what it was called).

Offset printing technology and photocomposition of type came to India in the late 1960s, once again, with a bias towards the Roman script. It took another 20 years to become popular with Indian-language newspapers as the computers and software necessary to use offset printing technology was not readily available in the Indian languages. With offset presses in place, the late eighties saw the beginning of a printing revolution in Indian-language newspapers, the benefits of which are visible today – not only in news and editorial, but also in advertising. For the Indian-language newspaper, the story has just begun.

08 October 2006

Yet another dilemma

“You were who you were because of the language and dialect you spoke, the location of the village of your male ancestors, the family and religion you were born into. I was a Bengali and proud of it, which meant that I claimed as heritage a culture distinct from that of a Bihari or a Punjabi or a Gujarati or a Tamil. That’s the way we were brought up in Calcutta in the Fifties. We were encouraged to set ourselves apart from people of other Indian states.”
(from ‘An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee’ by Tina Chen and S X Goudie, University of California, Berkeley, 1997)

I wonder if things have changed much in India since the Fifties as far as this observation goes in defining our identity. In India today, we still identify ourselves with our father’s name and his cultural/ethnic background. Mind you, this is not an extraordinary notion contained within India. All over the world, after defining their nationality, people do make a reference to their roots/origins – indicating a consciousness that people carry about their social identities.

The significance of this social identity increases with migration – of the kind India is experiencing today as millions of people from the rural setting are moving into the cities (see my previous post). Migration leads to fusion of cultures, interracial marriages and, perhaps, more confusion over identities. Governing all of this is a history of a nation of poor people. For marketers trying to champion their cause in such a marketplace this is a real challenge.

How do marketers win the hearts and minds of consumers who are so diverse that reaching out to them means communicating in 18 different languages? How do marketers identify and use the myriad images, colours, symbols and nuances that are the building-blocks of a hundred different cultures? How do marketers create demand in millions of consumers who have been used to using wood and coal and kerosene as their source of energy?

Despite the much-flaunted modern India of mobilephones, fast cars and Western fashion, India has retained many of its former characteristics. A sense of self-identity as defined by our place of birth and our male ancestors, which Bharati Mukherjee spoke of, is one such critical characteristic that defines our buying habits and consumption patterns. For marketers, the challenge is to understand this and find innovative ways of blending India’s past with the future through sustainable marketing and advertising campaigns.

It’s yet another dilemma for the marketers. Though one thing is for sure, India’s regional/local language media is likely to benefit from this the most.

[Bharati Mukherjee is the author of four novels, two short-story collections, and two works of non-fiction (co-authored with her husband Clark Blaise), and a well-known creator of immigrant literary theory “that embodies her sense of what it means to be a woman writer of Bengali-Indian origin who has lived in, and been indelibly marked by, both Canada and the United States.”]

07 October 2006

India’s cities: a life source for millions

As India’s urban affluent head out on the highways for a joy ride in their fast cars (see my previous post), millions from India’s over 600,000 impoverished villages move into the cities for a daily living. Travelling in trucks and buses, on trains and even on foot, they migrate not only to the nearest town but also to distant cities (people move from Orissa to Delhi, Bihar to Surat, Kerala to Mumbai), offering themselves as cheap labour to their new city employers.

Working for 50 rupees a day (just over US$1), they take their chances with the new economy that has permeated everything they see, leaving behind their fields and their farming forever. Typically, they look for factory jobs or jobs at construction sites, in groups, sharing meals, spending nights in most squalid conditions. Supply outstripping demand, many are found begging on the streets or turning to crime. If they get lucky, they become street vendors, owing their allegiance to a local ‘boss’.

Of course, not all migration is of this type. There are others: smarter people, with some education, coming to the city with a friend’s contact, staying eight to a room. They take up jobs in shops or offices (recent attractions have been India’s retail and service sectors); become drivers for cars, auto-rickshaws or tempos (India’s version of utility vehicles); perhaps join the police force; or, in a place like Surat, become a well-paid diamond polisher. They get absorbed by the city, straining its resources, and, in turn, over the years, changing the city’s demography and culture.

There’s a churn in the villages too. With people moving out of villages, the village landlord’s power base is slowly withering. Moreover, when these city migrants return home for a visit, they not only bring with them money for the family, but also a new outlook to life and self-governance. They share their stories and experiences of their struggle, of sustenance, of self-reliance, of consumerism, of indulgence, of aspirations… giving hope to millions who, in turn, look to India’s cities as a life source.

05 October 2006

The road to glory

There was a time when, to an Indian, owning a car was an achievement. Those who owned one were rich; those who owned more than one were filthy rich. There were two types of cars to choose from: Fiats and Ambassadors. Their shapes, their engineering, even the colours they were available in, didn’t change much over the years. Whoever owned a car owned one of these models, moving around town with an air of superciliousness. The rest of India either admired them or hated them.

In the 1980s, things changed with the entry of Maruti Suzuki. They introduced a small car and a small van – Sanjay Gandhi’s dream, although no-one gives him any credit for it – in bright colours, with low noise, faster pick-up and better fuel efficiency than the Fiat or the Ambassador prevalent on the roads at that time. Marutis became extremely popular, overshadowing attempts by the Contessa and the Standard 2000 to create a luxury segment in the Indian auto industry. Millions of Indians began to see new possibilities. For the middle-class, owning a car in the future was going to be a reality.

After a 15-year journey, that future is here. Indians are buying cars left right and centre, with a million new cars coming on the roads every year in various models, sizes and colours. Not just Indian brands, but foreign car companies are now in India with their manufacturing and marketing facilities, introducing new models every three years. India has now become one of the fastest-growing car markets in the world. Cars have become the new symbol of recognition in society – a metaphor for status and privilege, and the new consumerism that has flooded the country.

With better engineering, the new cars also represent speed. To accommodate this, India is now gearing up to revamp her roads and highways. Cities are expanding their roads, building flyovers, and installing better traffic-control systems. Still, progress is slow and congestions on city roads are worrisome, sometimes frustrating, particularly during rush hours.

The situation in Bangalore, for instance, is so bad that, on several occasions, travelling to and from the airport – a distance of 10 kms – has taken me more than an hour. People in Bangalore are infuriated with the traffic. Media reports have voiced that well-known business houses in Bangalore are planning to curb further investments in the city and move elsewhere, in an effort to highlight the government’s lack of concern in addressing the traffic-congestion issue.

However, some Indians are unfazed. They are taking to the highways with their fast cars. Going out on a 200-km road trip over the weekend, driving between cities or between a city and a holiday resort, instead of the usual train, is becoming common these days. Even when the highways weren’t so good, in 2001, I had done the 1100-km journey between Mumbai and Bangalore (and back again) in less than 18 hours. Although slow by Western standards, believe me, it was a pleasure!

Now the Indian government has stepped in, upgrading the national highways into 4 or 6-lane traffic. A major project is building the Golden Quadrilateral, a superhighway that connects Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. Some portions are already over, welcoming fast cars and motorbikes with open stretches never experienced before. For Indians with fast cars, looks like the glory days are here.

03 October 2006

So many mouths to feed, but who’s complaining!

“India represents an economic opportunity on a massive scale, both as a global base and as a domestic market… Recent times have seen an awakening of interest in what India has to offer to global businesses.”
(A September 2005 KPMG report, ‘Consumer Markets in India – the next big thing?’)

With over a billion people, you can imagine how much food is consumed in India everyday. One estimate says that, every year, India produces one ton of food for every single inhabitant. Got that! In spite of many people living below the poverty line, some starving to death, India is a huge consumer base for the world’s food and drinks market. Since this market is unorganised, with millions of small self- or family-owned shops, it’s difficult to estimate its size. A 2004 estimate by FICCI pegs it at US$70 billion for food alone. Beverages are likely to account for another US$80 billion at the least, not including alcohol.

The interesting thing is, most food consumed in India is domestically produced. India is the world’s biggest producer of livestock, the biggest producer of milk, and the second largest producer of fruits and vegetables. With a strong vegetarian population, India consumes very little meat or fish (much of India’s marine production is exported) compared to Western or other emerging nations. However, poultry is popular among non-vegetarians. Consumer spend on food varies, but an average Indian family spends half its income on food. This figure, of course, reduces with higher incomes.

Traditionally, Indians are used to consuming fresh food, shopping for fresh produce daily. So far, there’s been little fascination for processed or packaged food (around 2% of India’s agricultural output is processed). But, with globalisation and larger disposable incomes, lifestyles and consuming habits of Indians are changing. Now you can find anything from branded atta to bottled water, coffee to confectionery as packaged food on the shelves at retail stores across the country. The trend is apparent – more and more Indians are choosing to take home processed or packaged food everyday, along with their fresh groceries.

Since 80% of consumer spends in India are estimated to be on FMCG (household and personal-care products, confectionery and tobacco), even a quarter of that spend on processed or packaged food could open up a market of unbelievable proportions. Both Indian and global brands see this as a huge business opportunity, even in the face of government restrictions on direct entry of global brands in the retail sector. Homegrown Indian, as well as MNC, brands are ruling the roost at the moment, but soon most global packaged food brands are expected to be here.

Marketing has already begun in the urban centres and other towns, addressing a population of approx. 250 million. The rural markets are next, hopefully, adding another 250 million to the consumer base in the next 10 years. Opening up to the world a market of 500 million consumers! With so many mouths to feed, nobody’s complaining!

01 October 2006

India assures a future for print journalism… in English

While the rest of the world is talking about the death of the printed newspaper (thanks to the Internet), India is on a new high. English-language newspapers in India are growing in circulation as well as in advertising revenues, and there’s talk of new publications coming up in the future. Already Mumbai has seen the launch of Hindustan Times, DNA and Mumbai Mirror, while Mumbai’s Mid-day has recently launched an edition in Bangalore.

But, there’s more. The International Herald Tribune started printing in India earlier this year. The Financial Times picked up a stake in Business Standard and plans to launch a South Asian edition next year. The Hindustan Times group, with branded content from the Wall Street Journal, is planning to launch a business title. Dainik Jagran (a Hindi newspaper group) is planning to print an international edition of the Independent (in English) sometime soon.

India’s regional language newspapers are growing too (even a 1% rise in India’s literacy level impacts newspaper readership), but it’s the English readership segment that the world is watching. What’s the reason for India’s success? The answer lies in India’s fast economic growth and the impact of globalisation – both contributing to a higher standard of living and a Westernised lifestyle. As an outcome, English language is used by more and more people these days, naturally increasing the demand for news in English.

Moreover, Indian newspapers are not threatened by online news and analysis as newspapers in the West are. With low penetration of the Internet – under 5% in India, compared to 69% in the US and 63% in the UK – Indian newspapers are enjoying a double benefit: Not only are they gathering new readers almost every day, they don’t have to compete with online advertising rivals as their Western counterparts do. On the contrary, for English-language newspapers, advertising revenues are soaring.

In the international market, this revenue looks small at the moment. But, with India’s huge population, it promises to grow to substantial levels… in a market which is rapidly shrinking internationally. In the world of print journalism, this looks like some sort of a magical turnaround. One hopes, India will keep her promise.

[Citation: The Guardian, 18 September 2006, ‘India is where the action is’ by Randeep Ramesh (requires user log in)]