Kolkata -- Approaching the local branch of the State Bank of India (SBI), I am struck by the large sign that proudly advertises the bank's "e-corner," which turns out to be an air-conditioned alcove housing four ATMs and an ATM-like machine that is at the moment obscured by a long line of people in front of it. I haven't been back to India in a couple of years and want to withdraw Indian currency. In the past few visits to India, my SBI ATM card for my non-resident Indian (NRI) account has been very useful - I have not had to queue up with a passbook and withdrawal slip or check in hand.
It has been slightly more than two decades since India opened up its economy to the world. During this period, rapid economic growth in areas such as software services and trade has created a lot of wealth. Yet, contradictions abound. Everywhere in India -- even its glitziest hotels and ostentatious shopping malls -- abject poverty is only a stone's throw away, just around the corner if not right outside. Lamborghinis and Porsches, favored cars of India's ultra rich, zoom past people sleeping on the streets, who subsist on less than $1 a day. The old co-exists with the new. In Jaipur, I saw a mahout on an elephant using a cell phone. It seemed to sum up today's India.
"By the time I finally withdraw cash, I have been at the branch for more than three hours."
At the SBI e-corner, my ATM card does not work at the sole functioning ATM (the others are apparently out of cash). I go inside and begin the mad scramble familiar to anyone who has to deal with an Indian government undertaking. I am directed to a window, where a clerk directs me to another officer, who promptly sends me to yet another colleague. Finally, a man who has a sign "ATM officer" hanging over his desk says my card is old, so it has been blocked. He mentions something called KYC, which turns out to be Know Your Customer (we Indians have a fondness for acronyms). I will need to present my passport and driver's license and proof of address (all which I have done in the past and seems to be on file, but for some reason I have to do all over again). As I prepare to hand over all the documents, the clocks strikes 2 o'clock and the entire staff goes on lunch break. Work stops for an hour.
Archaic laws, myriad rules and a creaky bureaucracy used to characterize the India in which I grew up. Two decades of modernization have changed many things, yet have left many others unchanged. There are sleek new metro railways and gleaming airports in cities across the country. At the same time I saw cows asleep on national highways, with drivers navigating around them at 60 kilometers per hour. Many branches of banks still shut down between 2pm and 3pm. Meagre working hours (10am-4pm, with an hour for lunch) and India's huge population mean that one invariably has to wait at an SBI branch.
I hang around and update everything, and ask if I can use my card. Oh no, the ATM officer says. I'll have to apply for a new one, which will come from Navi Mumbai in about 10-14 business days. Next, I'll have to come and sign for my pin, at which point the card will be activated. There is no hope of using my ATM card. What if I am not around for the fortnight it takes for a new card to arrive (as is the case with me)? India's biggest bank is unprepared for this eventuality. The ATM officer scratches his head. It is back to passbook and withdrawal slip for me.
Contradictions are to be found everywhere in India. You will get great service - likely some of the best pampering in the world - at hotels like the Oberoi. I witnessed this first hand in Jaipur. At the other extreme, I was shocked by the appallingly bad customer service at Pantaloons, one of India's leading fashion outlets, which seems to subscribe to Western ideals in every other way.
My bank passbook has to be modernized, I am told. A barcode is pasted at the back cover, and I am directed back down to the e-corner to get the latest account statement. The mass of people I had seen earlier in the day turns out to be the queue for the passbook-updating machine. It is a machine I have not encountered before. It reads the barcode of a passbook and then prints the balance. Simple enough, but the technology seems overwhelming for many of the older patrons of the bank. The machine is quirky: you need to insert the passbook at the correct angle, or it fails. Many are stymied by it. As such, one of the security guards has been deputed to help people master the machine. You would have thought the passbook would have disappeared in the age of electronic statements and ATM cards (like in other countries). But this is India, so the passbook now has a barcode, and the process to update it is even more cumbersome than in the past. Digitization has not simplified things - at least at my local State Bank of India branch, it seems to have just added yet another layer. By the time I finally withdraw cash, I have been at the branch for more than three hours.
"Digitization has not simplified things - at least at my local State Bank of India branch, it seems to have just added yet another layer."
My experience at the bank notwithstanding, there is a lot that I see that is good during my visit to India. There are beautiful roads, like the Yamuna expressway, a 100-mile 6-lane concrete corridor between Agra and Delhi. Airports that I pass through are modern and well maintained. Planes leave and arrive on time. In Kolkata, traffic actually moves. The many "fly-overs" and one-way streets have drastically reduced travel times across the city. Street lighting has improved; and newly instituted garbage compactors seem to be dealing with the problem of trash better than in the past. At least there seems to be less trash overflowing onto the streets.
The government of West Bengal's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is serious about updating Kolkata's dilapidated infrastructure. There are new playgrounds and better pavements across the city. There seem to be fewer potholes, even during monsoon season. Crumbling buildings dating from the British colonial era are being renovated to their former grandeur. A stretch of riverfront along the Ganges has been revitalized into a park. The rumor is that the Chief Minister, inspired by her recent trip to London, has decided to make Kolkata like London. Whether due to this or not, a Big Ben-like clock tower is taking shape along the road to the airport. More midget than Big, this Ben is indisputably Indian: it has a faintly saffron hue.
I read in newspapers that 75,000 people, including engineers and college graduates, applied for 30 openings for peons (office clerks) in the state of Chattisgarh. Even for India, the numbers seem scandalous. Population is India's biggest problem, and competition for anything - whether a job or a seat at a local school - is intense. Twenty five years ago, the population was roughly 880 million. Today it is more than 1.2 billion, a close to 50 per cent increase.
All across India, this burgeoning increase is reflected in new construction. Cities are growing at rapid rates, extending outwards as well as vertically. (I saw an advertisement for a 60-storey building in Kolkata.) This construction boom is creating millionaires. The ranks of the super-rich in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata are growing faster than anywhere else in Asia. In Kolkata, for example, the number of ultra rich individuals (worth more than $10 million) has climbed by 171 percent in the decade from 2004-2014. By comparison, Singapore had a 138% increase while Hong Kong had 83% and Tokyo 53%. The evidence of new wealth is easy to see. I drive past a high-end shopping mall with expensive brands such as Gucci, Rolex and Burberry, which opened its doors last November. Near about the same time, a Porsche car dealership also opened for business in Kolkata.
I am supposed to head back to the United States on September 2nd. In a peculiarly Indian move, trade unions have called for a "bandh" or strike on that day. My friends monitor updates about it on their smartphones. I am told the pilots of Air India might go on strike after September 6th. I will have left by then, sans a working ATM card. In many ways, India has not really changed.