The business of living, then and now

Tracing the highs and lows of liberalisation through the Girla family

aasha

Aasha Khosa | July 20, 2016 | New Delhi


#economy   #1991 liberalisation   #25 years of economic reforms   #Manmohan Singh   #PV Narasimha Rao   #India  
The Gilra family
The Gilra family

After teaching English literature in a postgraduate college for nearly a decade, Dr Shiv Kumar Gilra managed to save Rs 4,500 for a scooter. Then, back in the seventies, one had very limited options to choose from; most people bought either Vespa or Bajaj. Gilra, who had become father of two children by then, had waited long to buy his first vehicle, and he didn’t want to be in the two-year queue for the two popular brands. He quickly settled for Allwyn Pushpak, the first Indian scooter with Italian technology, manufactured in Hyderabad. 

 
“Earlier we would take a bus from Modinagar to Meerut; eat out in the fashionable Begumpur area and watch a movie. The trip would cost us about '15,” says Gilra, who, at 79, today lives with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren in Indirapuram, Ghaziabad. The scooter gave wings to the family, which then found more options to enliven their weekends.
 
Sauntering down the memory lane, Gilra talks of the days when the Indian economy was tied to the apron strings of regulations and licences and there wasn’t enough cash in the hands of a common man to splurge. “We didn’t run after material pursuits since there was no surplus money to be saved and found happiness in the family and smaller bounties of life,” recalls Gilra, who retired as principal of a PG college two decades back and is now a visiting faculty at a professional college.
 
The Gilras earlier lived in the Professors’ lodge, a small but affluent neighbourhood inside the campus in the PG college of Modinagar, a textile town on the Delhi-Meerut highway. Only one among the 26 professors living there had a car – an Ambassador. There was one telephone to cater to everyone’s emergency messages. “I remember the message of my daughter’s birth came to me on my neighbour’s telephone,” says Gilra.
 
His wife Indu says that theirs was the first household to have a cooking gas connection. “Getting a cooking gas connection was almost impossible those days,” says Gilra. “I got it because my brother was working in Indian Oil Corporation, which sold cooking gas under the Indane brand.”
 
Indu, who was working as a teacher in a school, says her life was full of happiness and contentment. Each month the ration for the family would cost her around Rs 40. “At the end of the month I could barely save Rs 12 to 15, which I put in the post office savings scheme,” says Indu. Since it was the same story all around, “there was not much to think about the future and we focused on taking care of the family and building social relations,” she adds.  
 
Today, both of them have smartphones in their hands, but Gilra says that back then, communication was the most difficult aspect of life. After their son, Ashutosh, had got his first job – in Kanpur –  the Girlas felt the need to have a landline phone at home. “I had to wait for two years to get it.” 
 
Finally, when the phone was installed, both of them remember that calling their son was a herculean task. It would mean booking a trunk call and waiting for two hours before it would get through. “This [indicating the mobile phone] has made life easier now,” says Gilra.   
 
Indu remembers the time in mid-nineties when her school had purchased six computers. It was held in high reverence. “The computers were placed in a room next to the principal’s office. The cleaner was not allowed inside and all computers would be wiped with a soft cloth. Nobody was allowed to enter the room with shoes on; a lot of sanctity was given to this gadget.”
 
She smiles as she talks about a laptop that she had gifted to her husband on his 75th birthday. It is now lying almost unused. “It is a new world for me; I use it sometimes and can manage with its basic functions,” says Gilra.
 
Today, the couple fondly remember buying their first Orient table fan, the 100-litre Solitaire refrigerator, Godrej steel almirah with a lock, Uptron television and first second-hand Fiat car with their hard-earned money. “We celebrated each purchase since these had come after a long wait, planning and waiting.”
 
Movies, they recall, used to be the main source of entertainment. Whenever they went to Indu’s hometown, Ajmer, they would meticulously plan for the whole extended family going out to see a movie. “Watching a movie was an event, planned for four-five days. On the designated day, a tonga would take us to the movie hall. We would discuss the film for next two weeks,” says Indu.
 
Besides, the weekly Bollywood song show ‘Chitrahaar’ on Doordarshan kept the family and their neighbours glued to the TV. A Hindi film which would be shown over two successive Sundays would see their drawing room turn into a mini movie theatre for the neighbours.
 
Today, a car and an SUV are parked outside the Gilras’ home; school-going twin grandsons, Raghav and Parth, have scooters to move around on.
 
Ashutosh, who started his career as a production engineer with a textile firm in Modinagar in 1988, is now the India head of a Chinese textile company that is mulling production in India. He remembers the excitement of the early nineties when the PV Narasimha Rao government had initiated steps to open up the Indian economy. “It was an interesting era. I had left my job to do MBA since we saw opportunities coming our way and wanted to get equipped for the future,” he says.
 
In college, he said, a lot of students wanted to be financial experts. “The markets were becoming a force to reckon with. The ICICI Bank was among those first private banks emerging from government corporations. New brands had started flooding the market, foreigners were coming to India in droves to set up businesses.”
 
He says advertising, marketing and finance were throwing up exciting career opportunities for young professionals. 
 
Ashutosh specialised in textile machinery. In his field, he says, a lot of people from Germany, Japan and Switzerland – leading manufacturers of textile machinery – would come to India with the intention of setting up plants to manufacture textile machinery. The government had changed rules to allow major holdings in many businesses to foreigners. It also liberalised imports and also eased the regime for setting up new plants. “The end of licence raj also meant that new players had come into textile sector and the older ones, which had monopoly and had become complacent and turned into sloth, had to face stiff competition.”
 
Now foreigners could easily set up textile units in India under the export oriented unit (EOU) scheme. Under this, entrepreneurs could import machinery to set up plants without paying duty and in lieu give an undertaking that in the following years they would export products worth four times the duty that had been waived off for them. This brought in the much needed foreign currency to the country. For people like Ashutosh, it meant more career avenues and better salaries.
 
“My purchasing power today is far more than what I had dreamt in my childhood,” he says.
 
However, the biggest then-and-now change that Ashutosh feels is the use and availability of plastic money. Today, he says, one can easily manage with a credit or debit card without having a single penny in one’s pocket. In his childhood, everyone suffered from the insecurity of “cashlessness” since one was stuck if there was no cash in hand. “Earlier if you lost your wallet in a new place, you won’t be able to even move.” The credit available to salaried people from banks, he says, is another factor that has made life easier. 
 
Having to look after ageing parents, Ashutosh feels the healthcare facilities and health insurance is a boon to people. “Life expectancy is better and insurance has made quality healthcare affordable to all,” he says. 
 
Also, travelling across India and the world has become cheaper and smoother. He routinely travels to many countries for work. “Today the common man also has the means to book tickets and hotels on the internet for travelling across the world”, he adds.
 
“I read that the tourism and hospitality sector is poised for 27 percent growth in the coming decades and have since enrolled my son [Raghav] in the IHM [Institute of Hotel management] for a degree course,” he says. His other son Parth, is seeking admission to B.Tech in a prestigious private college. “The mushrooming of private colleges is also because of the liberalisation,” he says.
 
Speaking about his childhood, Ashutosh says soon after stepping into eighth standard, he was made in- charge of grocery for the family. I remember buying five kg of potatoes for 25 paisa in winter. Later, it touched 50 paise a kg but never went beyond Rs 1. A few years later, he would buy half a kg of Amul butter for Rs 9, a bottle of Coca Cola for 90 paise and a litre of petrol for his scooter for Rs 4 or 5. 
 
Ashutosh’s earlier jobs took him to various countries, including China, where he was amazed to see massive manufacturing bases at places like Shanghai, Nantong and Wuxi. “Everything there looks so grandiose, people are disciplined and trains and buses run on time,” he says.
 
He describes the Chinese model of economy as the biggest assembly line production that can become a potent political weapon against the entire world. “Today if China decides not to buy yarn from India or other cotton-producing countries, it would trigger a global crisis.” The global economy is so interlinked that a bad situation in one country can have repercussions even in the far away countries. He is impressed with China’s scales of economy and says this model is unmatched.
 
He is also happy that unlike his father’s small post office savings and FDs [fixed deposits] he has many options today. “In today’s world, one can set a target and multiply ones money to the desired level – something that was unthinkable in my childhood,” he says.
 
But hasn’t the new economy brought in a culture of pressure and uncertainities in jobs? I ask Ashutosh. He says, “In my father’s time, jobs were only in the government. Today, this type of employment is gone. Even in my field – textiles – a number of reputed companies had to close down after liberalisation since they could not reconcile to the new work culture.
 
“Earlier a company just needed a licence to start production. Since there was no competition, they were working at a slow pace. Also there was no culture of workers having to justify their salaries.”
 
He says today every worker and employee is accountable for his output and the work culture is focused on maximising individual output. 
 
However, the new economy has its own pitfalls. Gilra says that while life has become comfortable for most people, sometimes, he wonders whether material wealth is all that important. “I have interacted with hippies and other foreigners at ashrams in Pushkar [Rajasthan] and Haridwar [Uttarakhand]. Most of them are from affluent families and yet come here to seek peace. That makes me wonder whether we are on the right path,” says Gilra.
 
Ashutosh feels that one day India would have to deal with its burgeoning population to sustain its growth. He also wants a system wherein young students would grow with the sense of ownership of their land and national assets. “Definitely liberalisation has damaged our moral values and money is becoming the most important thing for all,” he says.
 
He also misses the neighbourhood tailor of his childhood as ready-made garments have become common now. 

aasha@governancenow.com

(The article appears in July 16-31, 2016 edition of Governance Now)

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