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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Huge Spending Cuts: the right way forward for Britain

David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, recently unveiled a series of hefty cuts to public services and the welfare system in the UK. The news has dominated headlines here ever since.

The reason for the need for cuts is that the UK’s deficit is apparently at a record high (£180bn, same as that of Greece), something that everyone is blaming on the overspending of the former Labour Government.

For me, it has been amusing and bemusing watching this news (and sensational headlines) about the new “austerity drive", having just returned to live in England from Mumbai.

We were told by Cameron that the welfare budget was to be cut by £18bn. The total benefits being handed out to a single family are now being capped at £26,000 per year (a salary an Indian could only dream of and one that most Brits have to work five days a week to get.) Here in England, the people who receive these benefits don’t need to work and have all this money all handed to them in a cheque. Often they are perfectly healthy and able to work, but they simply don’t need to, since the Govenment benefits are on offer. We are hearing on the news now that there are families in London that have been getting £400 a week in housing benefit alone, living in homes in central London, that no ordinary working person could ever afford. Some families in London get £50,000 a year in housing benefit, more than double the average salary in the UK. And that is just their housing benefit! They cash in other benefits on top.

I don’t think India has a welfare budget, like the UK does. In the UK anyone that doesn’t feel like working, doesn’t have to, and can get £65 a week in Jobseeker’s Allowance from the Government just to stay at home and watch daytime TV.

Another change Cameron wants to bring out is to raise the age at which men and women can claim a state pension to 66 here. Again, I am not aware of a state pension in India, and the country seems to be ticking along quite nicely. Why? Because people there rely on their families, not the state. The French meanwhile, are torching cars over their state pension age going up to 62!

If an Indian were watching the British headlines, that I am watching, they would be simply aghast at the amount of "freebies" (or benefits) a Briton can get. We have Jobseeker's Allowance, Housing Benefit, a Carer’s Benefit (if you care for someone); free access to hospitals, medicines, treatments ; free schools; a cash allowance just for having a child; cash for fuel for pensioners; free bus passes; free school meals, all kinds of subsidies for the unemployed…the list goes on. Our income taxes are paying for all this. And now we are being told that as we are in too much debt, they all have to get cut.

While I agree some benefits are essential (free health and education, free fuel for pensioners, incapacity benefit for the genuinely sick or injured etc), some are not and too much of some is very much a very bad thing – as it creates a layer of society that simply never works and lives off the state. Plus it encourages fraud. There are thousands of people that obtain incapacity benefit through fraud - cases of people being caught out are forever being reported in national newspapers.

What no one has thought of is what about getting all these people to work! A motivation for that would be having no money. But by giving them so many benefits, right now that incentive is withdrawn from them.

Perhaps if these people went out and worked, they would not need to rely on the state. They could pay their own rent. Then the money we are ploughing into benefits could be used on defence and anti-terrorism instead.

Can you imagine if India had all these benefits? It would go bankrupt overnight. There would certainly be no maids or road labourers. No, they would all stay at home living off state benefits instead as there would be no incentive to work. No other country would have been able to find 1,000 labourers in a day to work on the Commonwealth Games stadiums for a pittance, as the Indian Government did shortly before the Games opened....

Other cuts Cameron has announced include:

The Foreign Office withdrawing its funding of the BBC World Service. This needs to be funded by the BBC now instead. Sounds like a good idea to me, since the BBC is funded by compulsory TV licenses that anyone with a TV has to pay for anyway. Not quite sure why the Foreign Office was ever funding it.

The Transport Budget needs to be cut by £1.1 bn meaning that commuters (read: hard-working people paying off mortgages) will be forced to shell out even more on rail fares, that are already exorbitant. I am totally against this, as apart from anything, it is hardly going to promote greener living, and will hit those on low incomes as well as on high incomes. This is a matter which England would do well to learn from India on. I am not sure if rail travel is subsidised there, but it is amazingly cheap, meaning that anyone in India can afford it. And accessible transport is a vital ingredient in anyone’s quality of life. I remember how in May all the maids and watchmen would flock to their villages on trains. In England such distances by rail are far too expensive for anyone other than a fat-cat investment banker.

The Arts Budget is going to be cut by 30 per cent too, which I am also against as the Arts (theatre, films, museums, creative writing, fine art etc) are the heart and soul of Britain, something the British are proud of and a major reason why tourists visit. Many of Britain’s theatres, museums and films are currently subsidised by the Government. One could argue though that these organisations could be more efficiently run if their belts were tightened and could look to be patronised by private business instead.

University fees look set to double by 2012 and will no longer be capped for British students at £3, 290, which I am also against. It would be better if the Government forced universities to forge better ties with industry and make their courses more vocational, in my view, than simply withdrawing subsidies.

The Schools and Health budget remain unaffected, which is good and The Queen is being forced to cut her spending by £6 million.

Bizarrely, despite all these cuts, Britain, in a huge philanthropic gesture, is going to increase its overseas aid by 40 per cent, we are told. This has raised a few eyebrows.

In Mumbai, on the contrary, I saw barely any public services. The police and fire services aside (the former, which you may have to bribe, I am told), I can think of few public services, apart from road building that existed in India. To my knowledge, healthcare and education is not free for most people. (I think there are a few government-sponsored vernacular schools, but these tend to cater to the children of slumdwellers and the homeless, most of whom aspire to sending their kids somewhere better anyway. I am not aware of any free healthcare at all, as we have in the UK.) I don't remember going to any government-sponsored art galleries either, although Mani Bhavan, the highly inspirational Gandhi museum in Mumbai may have been free. Do you have to pay to go to the Jehangir Gallery? I can’t remember but I certainly don't remember seeing anyone collect the rubbish or sweep the streets. Oh, the army and defence - yes, there is a lot of money invested in that in India, for which we can be thankful. The army is very good (and the men super hot.) Airport security in India is unrivalled. But apart from defence, I am not especially aware of what public taxes in India are spent on. I don't think many Indians are either which is why there seems to be a national subversive attempt to not pay any taxes, or pay as little as possible. "All politicians are corrupt," is a comment often made in India. I do not agree with this as I have no evidence either way. Indeed the MP expenses scandal in the UK has exposed the "white-collar" corruption that exists in Britain.

And this is not the point. The point is that despite there being barely any public services in India, (and a hell of a lot of tax avoidance, which is not possible in the UK - the Inland Revenue catches everyone), Indian people do pretty well. Indians survive despite having none of the benefits on offer in the UK. One reason for this is that Indians depend much more on the family and themselves than the state. In my previous blog, Expat on the Edge, I touched on some of this: http://blogs.hindustantimes.com/expat-on-the-edge/2010/05/19/living-in-a-material-or-spiritual-mumbai/

Now, I am not for one minute advocating England axes everything and we end up like India where public services are woefully lacking; but there needs to be a happy medium between the two extremes. The worst part about Britain wasting so much money on benefits, is that there are plenty of jobs in the UK! Plenty of them. And imagine if half the money we currently ploughed into benefits was instead ploughed into more job creation and investment in British business!

At least in India there is a sense of and pride in working and saving. The ideology in India is that if you want something, you have to work for it and save to get it rather work out how to scam a benefit out of the government for it, or put it on a credit card. Perhaps a study should be done on the impact living in a society like India has on the individual and his attitude towards work, earning a living, his family, and his dependence on the state. It could reveal some interesting findings that Britain could learn from. Being born into a welfare state could  perhaps not be particulalry good for the average individual.

I wonder if as we barge forward into the 21st Century, with all the globalisation and competitiveness that comes with that, whether the welfare state, such as the one Britain currently has, can afford to continue, or whether nations like Britain will have to change and learn from countries like India.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The reaction to the Commonwealth Games: a microcosm of general attitudes towards India?

The British media ignored the shambles and fiasco of the Commonwealth Games 2010 in Delhi until two weeks before they were due to start, while the Indian media had been dutifully reporting on the impending disaster for months.
Then  when the British media did start reporting on it, it became headline news for a solid 10 days. It was, in journalistic terms, a fantastic news story, and sometimes so comic, you wondered if the Indian officials behind the games, shouldn't just ditch it all in, and take a job at Mumbai's Comedy Store instead. Their mishaps, faux pas, errors, mismanagement, alleged corruption and bad luck seemed to almost be deliberate to keep the western media salivating for days. The CWG Committee was generating more column inches than any PR team could have dreamt of.  Unfortunately though, it was not good PR for India, that had until then been the flavour of the month in the West owing to pity generated by the Mumbai attacks and adoration generated by Slumdog Millionaire. I wondered if the British media reluctance to report on the shambles in the first instance was an over-fawning upon India, because of a desire, prevalent in some western media,  to "talk India up" and ignore its problems. Even David Cameron had ignored the CWG problems, apparent to everyone else, when he made his first charm offensive visit to India before the Games.

It was ironic that the Western media ignored the fiasco subject for months (that is June/July/August), when the Indian media was pulling the CWG commitee up for its alleged corruption, misuse of funds, and the sorry state of construction every day.
But as the Opening Ceremony got close, the western media could ignore it no more. Then suddently the stories flowed in, as though part of a cleverly drawn up media camnpaign, albeit offering negative coverage every day. Whether it was the faux pas at the inaugural show by Kalmadi saying Princess Diana had attended, or his next mistake stating the USA was a member of the Commonwealth, or  reports that poisonous snakes were on their way, that dengue had arrived, and stray dogs were sleeping in the athletes' bedrooms, or that  British swimmers had all came down with Delhi Belly, or that the athletes' village was described as "unfit for human habitatiion," all journalists, regadless of nationality, had a field day.

What then happened in the British media and on social networking sites like Facebook was a bizarre reaaction to the series of events that almost revealed  people's suppressed attitudes towards the whole of India, like a old wound bursting open again.
On the one hand, there was the nationalist young Indian, furious at the negative coverage India was getting, venting anger about the Commonwealth's very existence, railing againt the British Raj and India's colonionial histrory, suggesting the Commonwealth was meaningless, offensive and should be scrapped.
This was an exchange on one Facebook page.

A: The CWG, is it a national shame or regional or even local?
B: Its a national shame....corruption at its peak.'It's not only a national shame, but the officials have nowhere to hide their face because this time everything is transparent about how the tax payers'' money is fooled around with.
C: Mumbai would have handled it better, or the Games should have been organised outside of Delhi's built-up areas. But hey we have more brutal things, such as grinding poverty, to be nationally ashamed of. The CMG are not even of Olympics standards, plus it's a legacy of colonisation.
D: I agree there are other issues but imagine those 'goras' lecturing us. Also,corruption exists even in the Western countries but only its not visible. What I want to say is, no action shall be taken against the culprits ar usual. But how long can we sit speechless or let out our anger through some social networking site! It won't work. Sometimes I wonder whether this democracy gifted to us by The British is a gift in disguise.
E: See after all it was much ado about nothing. yes they were some small matters of toilets leaking, etc. Indian media exaggerates, dont take them seriously folks...  look at the latest news: Canada coming, Wales coming, Scotland coming, England coming... they were the ones who had delayed their arrival in Delhi. People down under have always been a spoil sport. Let them not come. It's the white folk who create problems. African nations never said they were delaying their departure, did they?

Then you had, some of  the right-wing western media reporting in an almost xenophobic fashion and with relish, the disaster, day by day, as it unfolded, almost looking for more stories than there already were (was child labour being used to sweep the floors,  for example, was a question lingering on their minds.)
As with Slumdog Millionaire, the problem with this kind of reporting is, one minute the media is all over a social issue, the next it is not. So while child labour may be a problem somwhere in India, it probably wasn't much of a problem at the CWG (correct me if I am wrong); yet real child labour, where it exists in India, no doubt, continues ignored.
Then you had the athletes saying how great India was and they coudn't wait to eat Tandooori Chicken, dismissing all the negative stories.
Then followed the story of the thousands of used condoms blocking the drains at the Games Village - filling Indian minds with more negative stereoptypes that all Westerners are loose.
There was something quite surreal and shocking too about watching these athletes in the skimpiest of outfits wander around with Indian workmen and peasants nearby...Then there were the less nationalist but nonetheless patriotic Indians, who still didn't get what all the noise was about.

"Great Opening Ceremony and "Great Ending" they tweeted.  Nothing on what happened inbetween bothered them.
It went off well so all the CWG bashing needs to stop!say lets give the CMG a nice burial in Delhi and bury the colonial past with it , one tweeted.

As the lack of sale of tickets became apparent, I asked some Indian friends on my Facebook page, why they weren't going to it. The empty stadiums were making headline news in the UK again and this was something (unlike corruption and roofs caving in ) that they could do something about quickly - and resolve. If I was Indian and in India I would have got a bunch of friends together and gone there. Watching athletes perform to empty stadiums on TV was painful.
The response?

A: Do you really expect Indians to bother seeing Netball between Papua New Guinea and Bermuda when India-Aus are involved in a Cricket Test match? Heck - even if the cricket was not on - who would really want to go?who cares ??"
B: All i know is I am not travelling to delhi for next 2 weeks !
C: There is a general security paranoia - media hype! I'm not that into the idea anyhow. It's hardly exciting.
D: The tickets are too expensive.

Why were tickets too expensive? Was their price not researched? Why did loads of suited corporates from private companies not attend, as they do attend other sporting events like Wimbledon and Henley Regatta? Where were the tickets on sale? What will happen to all these stadiums now? Why were they built with such massive capacities, if there was no strategy to sell tickets or evidence100,000 tickets would be sold.
Even Delhi's beggars said the CWG were bad for business (read here http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2010/10/12/games-bad-for-beggars-business/) and tourism went down rather than up http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2010/10/07/games-bbs-have-been-big-bust/
Yet the West was accused of India bashing by some.
Pix of some of the rooms in the Athletes'Village were circulated on the Internet. Some showed immaculate sparkling rooms, others showed dog footprints and dirty sinks, depending on who was circulating them, and what their view was.
At the end of it, there was a general sense among some Indians that the Games had not ben as disastrous as the media had made out.
"We pulled it off, it's not like it didn't happen at all," they said. It was likened to an Indian wedding, where everything falls into place at the end.
Some Indians decided the Games had been "an unqualified success"
But did everything fall into place?
Should Indians care more about the image of India in the world and the bad PR they got from this? Or not? Was it the "perfect Indian wedding?"
It seems to me that provided the Indian economy is growing at 7 per cent, many young Indians don't care what image the CWG gave out. I noticed in India a trait not to focus on the negative and to remain positive, to partake in self praise far more often than self criticism, to be happy with whatever the outcome was, provided it wasn't too dire (eg noone died), and to focus on the end result more than the process getting there; unlike in the West which is more obsessed with having everything going to plan, meeting deadlines and achieving perfection, as well as having a penchant for self-criticism, above self praise. On the one hand, the Indian attitude is dangerous as it can lead to a satisfaction with something substandard (eg a product or service esp in the context of outsourcing); on the other hand it is a more stress-free way to live.
Even during the terror attacks, I remember life in Bandra went on pretty much as before. The shop keeper in the corner shop carried on stacking shelves. What is it his problem if there is an attack in Churchgate?
Or maybe I am reading too much into this, and the CWG did not interest India because the word Commonwealth now repulses modern metro ambitious proud Indians.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

London and Mumbai: overrated, overpriced and dirty...

Everyone at the coach stop was a senior citizen, except me. Most were dressed like hicks. We were all embarking on a massive trip to London. For me it was my first trip to the big smoke, since returning from India. The queue of Somerset locals reminded me of the scene of strugglers queuing up to travel to Mumbai from places like Bihar.
Of course, "I" knew what London was "like", so had spent an entire day emptying my wardrobe looking for smart clothes, in an attempt not to look like a local yokel in the glitzy capital. I had several parties and dinner parties lined up and wanted to look 'the part.' After all, if there was one thing Mumbai had taught me, it was the importance of dressing smartly, dressing to the occasion, and well, in short, looking rich and glamorous. Those are the rules by which the Mumbai social set lives. Disobey them at your peril and expect to  lose your confidence and feel like a wallflower at any social gathering. (I  learnt this the hard way. It took me 2 years to learn that ripped jeans and T shirts do not go down well at page 3 parties in the city that never sleeps, but sequined black dresses and heels do. This is why the latter was my attire at my grand Mumbai leaving party:) I learnt the hard way that it was better not to show up at parties in Mumbai, than dress inappropriately. Of course, I also learnt that some of the most well-dressed people at these affairs, were financially bankrupt, immoral, having illicit affairs, unemployed, boring, rude you name it - but well-dressed they were.)


So, the coach left  and we glided through the rolling hills of Somerset, with fields of sheep on either side.


 I was still in my ''I love England mindset'' and so stared at the scenery and mulled on how happy I was to be in Somerset and how I wasn't missing the noisy honking chaos of Mumbai. The passenger in the seat next to me was rather fat squashing me somewhat. I also began to feel travel sick. Without wishing to offend her, I explained I may move seats as I felt ill, as we seemed to be sat above the wheel. A few minutes later, quite randomly, she asked: "Are you pregnant?" This was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, if ever there was one. "No!"I said. "Oh, I just thought you might be, given you said you felt sick," she said.


I soon moved (or should I say shifted?) to another seat. My sickness wore off and I spent the journey texting those friends, who I would be meeting, after spending such a long time in India.






After some time, the lush green trees suddenly looked dead, the houses were no longer picture postcard aesthetically-pleasing dreamlike cottages, with thatched roofs and fields for gardens, but rather ugly detached "London suburb" homes, with tiny gardens..and ugly cars .Some had no curtains; some had dark drapes across the windows as though disguising drug-growing dens inside; yobs suddenly appeared on the pavements (men with woollen hats stretching down over their foreheads, and in tracksuits, loitering on bikes - a species not found in Somerset); there was litter scattered across the pavement; bins were overflowing; the scene was no grey, rather than green; graffiti scarred the buildings; there was a sense of poverty. It was ugly. The accommodation looked substandard. Council flats appeared. People suddenly looked badly dressed. I looked in horror out of the coach window. Is this the country I had been so proud of in India and constantly compared to Mumbai? Is this the best England can manage to produce with its capital city?  It was nothing like San Francisco.


The coach stopped at the London coach station. I had thought of having lunch there, but soon changed my mind as I went down the stairs into the shopping centre and saw a bunch of waifs and strays roaming around a cheap supermarket. I didn't like the look of the people and decided to head straight to Harrods. But I needed to use the Ladies' toilet. Cost of using the public toilet? 50 pence (Rs35)!! I was shocked. Although overpriced, I figured it would be safe and clean as the undesirables would never spend that much. I was right.


Next I stepped onto the tube. Unimpressive. Litter was scattered on the platform. To a newcomer (like me), the London Underground came across as old-fashioned, like something from the past century, and uncomfortable.  The routes and lines still didn't allow you  to make the journeys you wanted directly, instead forcing you to make changes. You walked so much between tube lines, you might as well have walked the whole distance. The yellow and green lines were still slow and useless. The brown line was still the best. On the tube, I looked around and there was an Asian man in a suit sat down,  a group of Italians talking loudly and what seemed to be a bunch of foreigners everywhere. When foreigners come to England, is this what they see? Do they know there is a whole world of England out there, beyond this, beyond London? Probably not, because you get sucked in.


People sat or stood on the tube in absolute silence. I chuckled at the thought of how noisy the same train would be in Mumbai. In London everyone looked miserable, everyone was ignoring each other, and everyone seemed to hate their lives. No wonder. I got entranced in staring at people, imagining their lives but avoiding eye contact. Everyone was also badly dressed. One man got on, with skinny jeans, trainers, a green urban jacket and ipod earphones in his ears. He had deliberately dressed like a yob, to fit in. No one looked like this in Somerset.


We reached Knightsbrige and I walked straight to Harrods. A doorman said, "Hello, Ma'am," as I walked inside. "This is more like it," I mused. "I feel more at home." I was glad I had dressed to impress. India had taught me the Art of that. I looked ''the part"" and the Harrods staff recognised that. But straight away though I was told to leave my suitcase in Left Luggage at Harrods, and that I could not bring it into the store. The cost? 3 (Rs215). I had now  spent 3.50 (Rs250) before even doing anything. My plan was to have lunch inside Harrods. After all, you only live once. But a coffee was 4 (Rs300) and a panini ₤15 (Rs 1,000). I figured that although I looked the part, I wasn't quite ready to be the part, and slipped outside to have lunch at a nearby trendy sandwich bar. The cappuccinos and sandwiches appeared to be the same prices, as they had been when I left for India. The varieties hadn't changed either. Weird. I sat outside, managing a sandwich, cappuccino and chocolate bar,  for ₤5 (Rs 350) but did not feel comfortable. Immediately two waifs and strays appeared and hovered near a dustbin, opposite my table. I wondered if they were planning on mugging me. I ate my sandwich, clutching my bag between my knees. I never had to do this in Somerset, I thought.


I swiftly returned to Harrods, one of the few places, I felt comfortable in London. The staff were all dressed smartly and looked clean and immaculate, as they do at five stars in Mumbai. They all called me Ma├ím . I felt at home. It was a Mumbai five star experience on offer here in London. I bought something expensive in the cosmetics section. The lady offered me a Harrods loyalty card. Of course, why not? I looked the part. I wandered around the Food Hall for hours, marvelling at what was on display, things I had never seen in India. I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I used the luxury toilets, and of course, there were fine perfumes to sample, and a foreign-looking lady inside who washed your hands for you, or got your a paper towel. This was just like the Taj in Colaba! I sprayed Guilty by Gucci on. The five stars in Mumbai had been fabulous and it was great to be able to experience that here, again, I mused. I visited the memorial to Diana and Dodi by the Egyptian escalator. There was a Dubai-esque feel to the place. Grotty London was a world away. In the same way that when in five stars in Mumbai, grotty Mumbai is a world away.


It dawned on me that the two cities had a lot in common: they were both where locals and foreigners flocked to make money, pursue careers or get fame. But neither city was attractive, both were grotty, and neither represented the soul of the country at large. I understood now why some of my Indian friends preferred to live in Chandigarh, Ahmedabad or Pune, rather than Mumbai. And in the same way overpopulation of Mumbai, was ruining it, so is the overpopulation of London ruining it.  In Mumbai there had been open areas of rubbish, where people simply dumped rubbish, which stray animals then fed from. Dustbins barely existed. In London, they did, but litter was strewn across pavements. There were no stray dogs in London, but plenty of stray pigoens picking at litter and feral-looking people. The buildings in the suburbs of Mumbai, such as in Bandra and Andheri, were far from aesthetically-pleasing and often substandard quality inside with monsoon leaks, revolting furniture, no water and peeling paint.
Similarly houses in London were nowhere near the same quality as those new homes you find outside the capital. Yet you pay through the nose to live in both cities.
Of course, south Mumbai has many visual architectural exceptions, as do touristy parts of central London. But the suburbs in both cities visually, at least, leave a lot to be desired. In Mumbai you have unalluring slums. In London you have unattractive council estates. 
Both cities have their selling points - such as nightlife, men, food and culture. That was what I planned to check out in London next. But already I could understand why Londoners raved about Mumbai so much. There wasn't much difference between the two cities, unlike comparing say either to Somerset. Even the laissez-faire attitude, found in Mumbai, was there in London. 
"You write in your blog that London is grotty, and we Londoners will just laugh. We know it's like that and we like it," my London friend said.