Memory from circa 1974. I’m chaperone to three younger cousins, and we are going to my aunt’s home in Versova, Mumbai, to spend a long weekend. We wait for BEST’s 84 Express at the Hughes Road bus stop. When it arrives, we climb to the upper deck and ride all the way to Andheri, the wind in our faces.
Fare for all four of us: Rs 0.75. Seventy-five paise. (In case you’re attempting some quick calculations, all three of them were below 12 and eligible for the half-price child fare). If that strikes you as amazingly cheap, you’re right. Of course it is.
And get this: it’s cheap even in today’s money. Inflation in the 42 years since then has averaged just under 8 percent. Apply that and the 75 paise balloons to … about Rs 19 today. Nineteen rupees for the four of us. For the same journey today, a single adult fare alone would be … Rs 26. If kid fares are still half-price today, the cousins and their teenaged chaperone would have to fork over Rs 65 for that jaunt to Andheri. No double-decker, either.
Nineteen rupees, versus sixty-five rupees. It’s a story I plan to submit to Indiabefore91.in, a new website dedicated to documenting life before 1991 and “liberalisation”. Indiabefore91 seeks to paint pre-liberalisation India as a grim country beset with shortages, its spirit crushed by the licence-permit Raj. The reforms of 1991, the site wants to suggest, changed all that. Their own blurb suggests as much when it refers to “the crucial role that liberalisation played in improving the lives of our people”.
Some of their submitted stories suggest as much too. One begins:
“The public was unaware of the corrupt practices before 1991. There have been many changes since then. Today you’ll find a washing machine and a car in every household.”
Apart from the implication that corruption has vanished, and no matter your bafflement at the link between corruption and washing machines, that phrase “every household” is something of a stretch. After all, the World Bank estimated in 2014 that nearly 180 million Indians lived on $1.78 a day or less. At least those 180 million Indians, you’d think, would hardly be likely to spend a half a year’s income on a washing machine, or ten years’ income on a car.
But let’s not quibble. If you have to make a case for 1991 marking an improvement in “the lives of our people”, one easy way is to gather stories of how awful “the lives of our people” were before 1991. Juxtaposed with awfulness, see, nearly anything is an improvement.
Still, one awful feature of our lives, circa 1974, was that after accounting for inflation, BEST fares were less than a third where they are today.
Thing is, Indiabefore91 perhaps forgets that there still are some of us who lived in that pre-1991 era. We took buses, went to school, held fulfilling jobs, watched films, studied hard, made do with whatever we earned and whatever this country had to offer, all that and much more. And we remember all that. And we’d like to remind Indiabefore91 of all that.
Bus fares, for one. Let’s try some more.
Like another memory from the early ‘70s. Every morning, I would run downhill to my school at Babulnath – home was that close. Plenty of my friends, though, had slightly longer commutes, and most of them came by school bus. One of those buses, carrying at least three of my classmates, came all the way from … Chembur. I suspect that on reading that, those of you who know Bombay will have gasped in wonder. For that’s a nearly inconceivable commute today: because of the heavy traffic, no Chembur parents today would send their child to a school in Babulnath. (And in fact this is one reason the same school today caters exclusively to SoBo families). This is a sidelight to a larger and more dismal story – despite any number of new flyovers and sealinks and toll-booths and freeways, traffic in this city is far more congested than a generation ago – than it ever has been. Despite those features of the city that have been sold to us as an answer to commuting headaches, the headaches remain. Road journeys routinely take as long or longer than they did in the past.
In the early ‘70s, the bus from Chembur brought those kids to Babulnath every morning in a little over half an hour. Try matching that today.
Look ma, no internet
Like the yellow-and-red striped postboxes that sprang up in all our major metro cities in the early 1970s. They were labelled “QMS”. That stood for “Quick Mail Service”. In 1975, I lived in Delhi and kept up a steady correspondence with a penfriend in Calcutta. It went like this: I would drop an inland letter (price: 20 paise) in one of those striped boxes near where I lived. It would be delivered to her in Calcutta the very next day. (Again, I suspect that on reading that sentence plenty of you will have gasped in wonder.) She would reply using a similar box near where she lived, and her letter would reach me the following day.
For the year or two that we used it nearly every day, that QMS system never failed us, and it laid the foundation of a lasting friendship. I will leave for you the job of inflating 20 paise over four decades, so you can learn exactly how much our lives have improved in this one area of paying for overnight delivery between metros.
Like a certain civility. Sure, we had no internet in those years, no smartphones either. But we also had no vicious, illogical trolls whose only aim is to pollute and pervert every discussion. We had our discussions all right, even heated ones about politics. But we brought to them a certain respect for the other’s views. The hatreds and suspicions so widespread today, the empty prejudices so openly expressed, were things of the future.
Like the scale of corruption. Remember the Bofors scam, which saw illegal payoffs to the tune of Rs 65 crore, an huge amount then? Well, that was 1987. Compare to the public money lost to the 2G scam of 2008: estimates range from Rs 65,000 crore to Rs 170,000 crore. No, inflation over 20 years doesn’t account for that 1,000-fold and more increase.
More corruption, intense hatreds, traffic headaches, a collapsed postal system, far more expensive public transport. All features of India in this era after 1991.
Which is hardly to suggest that today’s India is a cesspool. Not in the least. There is a phone in nearly every Indian’s hands, wide choice for nearly every object or service a consumer might want, increased literacy. The list goes on. Similarly, I hardly mean to suggest that the India of our 75-paise bus ride was some kind of El Dorado. We had the ridiculous reality of ten-year waiting periods for phones, three models of cars among which it was hard to decide which was the worst, long-distance trains that ran notoriously late. Again, the list goes on.
No, the point is really this: while the economic reforms of 1991 had to happen, it’s a mistake to assume that Indiabefore91 was a land of unrelenting misery. Plenty of us grew up in that India and – let’s face it – we didn’t all live lives of unrelenting misery. Enough said. In much the same way, it’s a mistake to assume that every aspect of life, for every Indian, has been improved by liberalisation. There remains a long road to travel, and far too many Indians still yearn for even the first sign of improvement in their lives. Enough said, again.
Those who make either of these assumptions do so, it seems to me, because they are themselves not entirely convinced that liberalisation has done all it should have done to improve Indian lives. Therefore they feel they must draw a line in the sand, mark it “1991” and paint one side of the line bleak, the other sunny.
Luckily, our Indian reality is far more complex and nuanced than that. Worth discussing, too – next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam on a new flyover.