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Lament of the NRI: Lowering the boom on India

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CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

There is a growing new lament one hears among NRIs lately and it goes something like this: Have you noticed how everyone in India is rolling in money these days? Everyone seems to be earning in the millions. The days of counting money in lakhs are over; it's all crores now. Have you checked out the property prices in India lately? It's cheaper to buy an apartment in Baltimore and New York than in Bangalore and New Delhi.

And then: Boy, Indian yuppies have money coming out of their wazoo now. Went out to a really tony place for dinner in Mumbai last time and guess what was the tab for four? Almost Rs 18, 000. That's like 400 bucks. And my hosts did not even bat an eyelid. Hell, I seldom fork out $400 in Manhattan. There was a time when I was expected to pay for all the going out while visiting India, but these days I keep my plastic firmly in my wallet while my cousins are all too ready to whip out their credit cards.

More: And what about their kids? Each one of them has a nifty Nokia phone - and an iPhone to boot. Remember the time when they wanted us to bring iPods, perfumes, and sneakers ? Now they get it all in India and they don't want anything from here. Hell, in any case, what does America make? It's all made in China - and most of the clothes are made in India.

The idea that India has suddenly become wealthy and the West is in terminal decline has somehow caught on, although it is probably a process, rather than an event, and there is a long road between here and realisation, strewn with boulders and bumps. For all the NRI/ urban India hype, India remains one of the poorest countries on earth and we don't even have to go to any survey for that. We remain the single largest repository of the poor, the hungry and homeless - even more than Africa - and no 9 per cent growth statistic can hide that just yet. Eventually, we might overcome that, but now is not the time for bragging.

It's true that less and less people are going to bed hungry in India now (well, when they have a bed) and there are reports that more and more people in America are (going to bed hungry ) going by the lines before soup kitchens. However, both the idea and definition of poverty in India is different from the rest of the world, especially in the United States.

Poverty in America typically means a state where one lacks a socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions. In monetary terms, an individual who makes less than $10, 830 per annum (approx Rs 40, 000 per month) is considered poor in America. In India, that would constitute middle-class.

But to hear the NRI gripe, everyone in India is making four lakh a month, not just Rs 40, 000. Much of this carping appears to come from the NRI's own reference point with his peers in India, which he or she conflates to the rest of the impoverished country.

You see, back in the 1980s and 1980s, if you were an engineering or medical grad in India and came to the US and earned $100, 000. . . you were considered rich. You could buy a nice car (on lease), buy a nice home (mortgage) and generally lead a good life. (especially on credit ). Back home, your poor classmate toiled away for Rs 10, 000 or so a month, rode a twowheeler to work, lived in a rented place, and barely made end meet.

Fast-forward a decade or two: the NRI's salary has inched up some five per cent a year, while the RIN (Resident Indian Native) income has bounded up by 10-20-30 per cent. Their salaries, if not at par, are not as far apart as a decade ago. Besides, the bucks go a long way further in India even with all the inflation - and high living.

The fact is, despite the glimpses of high living that NRIs witness among their peers-whostayed-back, it's still possible to live well in India on a modest income (as it is in the US too). But somehow, in the mind of the NRI, he's missing the India boom while being trapped in the American bust - and he hates it.

Reader's opinion (1)

Ravi NagNov 27th, 2010 at 20:42 PM

Your observations are true!
But thats how it has always been. In the 17th century India was the place all world powers wanted to be!
So its all a cycle and what goes up comes down.
Lets enjoy it when it lasts.

 
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