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Driving in God's own country- God help us

Last week my colleague, Siddharth and I landed in Kochi’s Nedumbaserry airport on our way to a town called Valapad. Believe if you will, but it was for a client meeting. The only thing in that town was the client. Not unlike Bentonville and Walmart.

I’ve been travelling to Kerala since I was a toddler and I had never heard of the place. We land at 9.15 and we have an 11 am session with the CMD and all those who directly report to him. We can’t be late. Sid asks very confidently at the prepaid counter for a car to Valapad, just to check for familiarity. He isn’t sure from the transaction, so he asks whether the driver knows Valapad? “Ohh, yes, yes. Driver knows very well,” came the answer, without skipping a beat. Then he asks if he would know the client’s office. “Ohh, yes yes… very well.” So we were on our way.

We get into the car. Sid is still not very convinced, so he asks the driver in his inimitable style, “How long does it take to Valapad?” Anywhere between three and four hours, we are told. (We know it’s not more than 90 minutes.)
Finally it turns out that Sid had to navigate him all the way to Valapad on his GPS and I had to keep him on a tight leash — with my broken Malayalam) within the boundaries of safe and legal driving.

The incident from that morning left us definitely irritated but got us to introspect as well. We were chatting on the way back and concluded that it must have been socialism at work. What did it take to shift us to a driver who knew Valapad? No, that wouldn’t work. That driver had to book that fare. Damn whether he knew the place, or even to drive.

So, I have forever wondered, for an Indian state that boasts some of the world’s best social and human indicators, why Kerala has remained an economic laggard. Why has it not attracted serious capital since Independence? It has always produced some seriously talented folk. Why did they all leave? Why has it been unable to create jobs to provide its very bright and educated young people?

Maybe we need to look beyond the social and human indices. I’ve said this before and I will say it again for good measure: Kerala may be God’s Own Country but when the Creator wants to chill, he probably goes to Goa. I wonder whether He would consider, “His own country” to put in long-term capital?

God’s Own Country was a clever reference to the landscape. It is breathtaking and it was indeed God’s gift. 
I wonder what instructions God gave to the people running “His country”. Did He tell them that customers do matter? That engagement is a key element in building an economy? That chemistry is important to people who bring in long-term capital to the state?

I keep hearing from the locals about how the state provides people who are intelligent, highly-skilled and of high integrity. I cannot disagree from experience. But these are only ‘hygiene’ factors to creating an attractive economic ecosystem.

Bangalore became the Mecca of the job-seeker and the international investor in the 90's. This was not only because of its climate, but also because it had a welcoming, hospitable core and an engaging style. I still carry fond memories of how RTO officials put me at ease when I first went there in October 1991. I was pleasantly surprised and grateful that an Indian city held out hope for the future.

It wasn’t as though Karnataka had economically evolved to the level where it could afford to be less socialistic. It was still finding its feet. Bangalore was the new kid on the block. It didn’t stop them from offering engagement and empathy.
I think God’s Own Country can do with a few neighborly tips. What say?

3 comments:

Stanley Kunjippalu said...

Ramesh,I understand your predicament in terms of the cab at CIAL as also your opinion on Kerala not being a place serious long term capital would vest in. The CIAL bit, I would think is a system situation wherein some of these cab drivers need to await their turn to get themselves a passenger. Be it a long distance booking or a local booking once they get their turn their next chance will be at the end of the line. They shift between the two terminals by turn and hence any trip allotted is taken as the next trip is not sure. I understand the predicament of the traveler who is not very sure of the route to his destination....but being a prepaid service, the onus is on the driver taking the shortest possible route to the destination as he gets paid that much and not a penny more. It is therefore possible that there is an outside chance of one getting stuck with a driver who is not very conversant with the route to uncommon destinations.
Re investment in Kerala.....Union Activism over the past many decades has been the primary cause. Some of the political bigwigs in the State today are products of Labour Union Politics. They messed up so bad that it has become a major curse for entrepreneurs from the state. Even though it is no longer as prevalent, a look at the number of bandhs, hartals etc in Kerala should give you some idea on the economic viability of sustained commercial activity in the State.
I have been here in Kerala for near about 30 years now. My children grew up here. The School they went to initially, one of the top private schools here , lost its charm when trade unions hit the school as teaching and non teaching staff started agitations. As the President of the PTA then, I did have a tough time trying to talk sense with the teachers, the management and the labour leaders. The matter resolved in about 1 year, but I took my kids out and put them into another school.
The rot is still persisting , however I somehow am of the opinion that GenNext will make a big difference in the social fabric of Gods Own Country....

Kuruvilla Abraham said...

While the Center invested in Bangalore, from the 1950s onwards, through HAL, HMT, BEML, ITI, BEL and premier research like LRDE, ADE and NAL, why did they not do the same thing for Trivandrum or Kochi. That too, despite VKK Menon and John Mathai being close to Nehru! Yes,Bangalore had a pre-independence jewel in the form of IISc (then the Tata Institute) but what else?

Bangalore was a Cantonment, with a near temperate climate (its USP) and was part of the Madras Presidency and that is where the defense folks wanted to pasture.

I believe that the educated landed gentry and the Malayalee bourgeois let down Kerala and then blamed the labor for their incompetence.

Sanjeev Singhal said...

The landed class and the bourgeois may have been responsible for the labour backlash in the first place. But the state has remained in its grip very much like West Bengal. In fact West Bengal saw industry moving out. Most parts of the country saw this labour back lash and strong trade unionism in the 70s and 80s. Hence there was hardly any growth during that period. But growth has since happened in those pockets where the balance has been restored from one extreme to the other. Kerala and WB continue to be trapped in the 70s and 80s and hence the locals are moving out and those left behind do not have too many job opportunities as none were allowed. Reminds me of the Indian version of the Aesop Fables -

http://www.quora.com/How-accurately-does-this-Indian-version-of-Ant-and-the-Grasshopper-Story-depict-the-situation-in-India

Sanjeev Singhal