Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Indonomics II

Also interesting is what appears to be a rickshaw drivers union, run by the Communist Party here. I spent weeks trying to figure out why the kiosk where all the drivers hang out at the end of my street had a red sickle and hammer and communist paraphernalia all around, and every time I went down there I never connected the dots until I learned through my internship how unions form in India- through political parties, and rarely (although becoming more frequent) through unaffiliated means. I will write more about this later, in relation to my work experience here, but the interesting economic aspect of this is that, as with all rickshaw rides, you want to avoid these guys like the plague (they're easily identified- they have the hammer-and-sickle pinned on their chest), as any driver that is parked, or near any others, will raise his price because he isn't already on his way there or the multiple others can gang up on you and price-collude. This is evident in a recent experience I had, trying to get to Guindy (near the airport), which should cost 70-100 rupees. "250 rupees, sah," I was quoted, with heads nodding all around. Interesting, I thought, and walked down the street to catch a guy already headed my way who started the bargaining at 100. On an unrelated but similarly discouraging note, the only time (and last time) I hired a guy from this stand was with the other American living in my house. When we finished bargaining with the driver, he produced a liter of vodka from his shirt, took a finishing swig, tossed it in the bushes, and motioned for us to sit down so we could get going. Safety first!

Anyway, last economic note. Essential goods are incredibly cheap here, mostly due to being grown locally or heavy government subsidization, such as with agricultural products and transportation. Rickshaws, trains, and buses are dirt cheap, as is most vegetarian Indian food, the fare at almost any "hotel" (codeword for "restaurant" here) or "dhaba" (roadside eatery). However, air travel is comparable to any Western nation, and car rental is about the same. Beer and Western restaurant fare are only slightly cheaper than in the U.S. (but comparably to alternatives, very expensive) and my digital camera actually cost more in USD than if I had bought it in the states. So in summary, anything that the average person uses or could be considered "essential" is amazingly cheap, whereas any luxury item or service that has a lesser-priced alternative ranges from relatively much higher (but not too bad) to almost absolutely higher.

(interestingly, movie tickets tend to be "essential" as well, flying in just under $2 at a big Regal Cinema-esque multiplex. Like Ganesh and the Ganges, what would India be without Bollywood?)

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