Why there's loads of pigs but no Kingfishers on the streets of Delhi

EDITOR'S BLOG: Narendra Modi is pushing for much-needed reform but the booze ban is a classic piece of Indian bureaucracy.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 08 May 2017

Where, in metropolitan areas of Britain foxes wander around bold as brass, in Delhi it’s pigs. The Indian hogs, which resemble wild boar more than the pink UK versions, trot happily about the streets snuffling out snacks from the roadside rubbish. But whereas we Brits get our knickers in a twist about the not-so-Fabulous Mr Foxes, Indians don’t mind one bit about pigs, or cows, wandering around and holding up the traffic.

Their continued presence on the streets of the Indian capital is a reflection of the speed of urbanisation taking place in the country. Returning to Delhi for the first time in five years one notices three things: the huge speed of urban development as it turns into a massive metropolis, the appalling levels of traffic congestion, and the poor quality of the air. These are the prices to be paid for being the world’s fastest-growing large economy.

But the thing that has exercised the country more recently has been ‘de-monetisation.’ The attack on India’s massive black economy was announced in early November last year and was deliberately designed to catch most Indians off guard. The prime minister Narendra Modi declared an immediate ban on the use of 500 and 1000 Rupee notes - 86% of India’s circulating cash supply - and ordered that they be taken to banks by the end of the year to be exchanged for new notes but only after they had been recorded (to put it in context, that’s like the Bank of England taking out all our fivers and tenners). Many Indians decided they would rather spend the cash than admit it was theirs.

As the deadlines approached shopping malls like Emporio containing luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton became very busy indeed as customers flocked in with massive wads of illicit notes. Jewellery stores selling gold stayed open until early into the morning to sell their wares, taking advantage of the boom in punters converting any vaguely ill-gotten cash into untraceable precious metals.

It’s not hard to see where Modi’s problem lies: just over one per cent of Indians fill in an annual tax return. He wants to modernise and grow but simply cannot do so without more government funds to pay for better health, education and infrastructure. Agriculture goes tax-free which means that a lot of money - legitimate and otherwise - goes into rural assets.

Unpopular but necessary measures on the path to development are always going to be tricky in India. Unlike his counterpart in China if he doesn’t do what the people want, Modi will be voted out. Those who oppose the command and control system in Beijing simply disappear. Cynics would say that democracy has held India back...

The country’s growth story is extraordinary. The population has swelled from 376 million in 1950 to 1.3 billion in 2015. The UN thinks it might surpass China by 2050 with 1.7 billion to Beijing’s 1.35 billion. And it has become more prosperous, although when it comes to the redistribution of wealth it has not done so well. Visible extreme poverty remains all around.

But in the numbers game it always has to play second fiddle to its great rival China. It annoys Indians intensely that Apple goes to China for its parts, not their country. If you measure GDP it lags far behind: China in nominal terms is $11,795,000 billion whereas India is $2,450,000 billion. Even measured at purchasing power parity China remains two and a half times the size.

Enough to turn anyone to drink. Except that - in another of India’s developmental eccentricites - judges recently introduced an alcohol ban within 500 metres of a national highway. The move was aimed to curb grim levels of drink driving which are thought to contribute to the 177,000 deaths and 487,000 injuries on India’s roads each year.

India’s long-standing disapproval of booze is a legacy of its revered independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, a teetotaller who viewed alcohol as a social evil and campaigned strongly against it. His influence led to Article 47 of India’s constitution, which commits the government "to endeavour to bring about prohibition" of alcohol as one of its "primary duties". In the state of Bihar booze was banned entirely last year - a move designed to get the voting approval of thousands of wives sick of their drunk husbands.

It is, however, duties of another sort which keep alcohol going. The Indian government at state level makes a small fortune from a market which is worth $39 billion annually. And there have been dire warnings that tourism could be hit hard as top-end visitors find themselves unable to enjoy a sundowner after a hard day traipsing around maharaja's palaces or chilling on a Goan beach. Crisil, a business analytics firm, has estimated the ban will hit takings by up to 30% in premium hotels across 12 major cities. The Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India reckons the ban will cost the Indian treasury up to £24 billion in lost excise.

As usual in India the ruling from the intensely political Supreme Court will have to be got round. Already roads are being re-classified and technical planning arguments about link roads put forward in an attempt to protect hard-hit hotel and restaurants. One Keralan bar owner had a particularly entrepreneurial solution, building a 500-metre long labyrinth between his premises and the road. It’s all part of the traditional red tape of doing business like in the bad old days of the ‘licence raj.’

However in your Delhi business hotel you currently won’t find any spirits in the mini bar only a few elderly Kingfisher beers. And happy hour in the Cyber Hub commercial district of Gurgaon has now become a decidedly unhappy affair as bars and clubs remain empty.

Image: Anne Roberts/Flickr

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