I went down to town this morning with Jack (not his real name), my trusted chauffeur, who is an Indian Muslim that speaks good English, Telegu, Urdu and Hindi, that I might go to the bookshop and then to have breakfast; and also because I wanted to widen my social network with a visit to the British Library just not very far away from town center.
On the way, I turned to him and asked him if he had his breakfast.
Jack: Yes Sir. I had my breakfast.
Me: What did you have?
Jack: Some roti and omellete.
Me: Say, how much do you normally spend on food?
Jack: For my family of four i.e. me, my wife and two small children, I spend for rice and wheat, around Rs1,600 per month. Vegetables around Rs500 per month and if I got enough money, I buy some mutton. That is about Rs500 per month. Total about Rs2,600 per month. (That is about USD59 per month. For all conversion rates, roughly, Rs1000:RM83:USD23).
Me: Is that what the normal people spend?
Jack: That is about right for normal “middle class” people.
Me: What about rent? How much do you pay?
Jack: Depends on where. If like in Banjara Hills around your area, bungalows will cost about Rs50,000 to Rs70,000. Apartments like yours will cost about Rs25,000 to Rs35,000. But in outside area, you can get a 2 bedroom apartment for about Rs2,000 per month.
Me: I see. What about your children? They go to the government school for free?
Jack: Oh no. Government school is free but they are very bad! The teachers are very bad. They cannot even speak English. Most of the schools have no tables and chairs. There are no rules and regulations. I don’t want to send my children there.
Me: Then where do you send your children to?
Jack: Private schools.
Me: How much do you spend on that?
Jack: For my 8 year old daughter who has just enrolled, I spend Rs4,000 for registration. Then Rs2,000 for books and Rs600 for school uniform. Every three months, I pay a school fee of Rs4,000.
Me: Wow, that is not exactly cheap! And I presume the cost will increase as your child goes to higher levels?
Jack: Yes, the fee will increase by about Rs400 per level.
Me: Do normal people send their children to these private schools or are you an exceptional case?
Jack: Normal middle class people that works like me (his definition of middle class includes anyone who has a secure job and above) sends their children to these private schools. We cannot trust to let our children to go to government school.
He points to some wayside illegal fruit sellers pushing a cart.
Jack: People like these sends their children to the government school because they cannot afford it.
Me: This is terrible! If the state of the government school is like what you said, then these people will be forever poor.
Jack: Sir, I can take you to a government school one day and you see for yourself.
Me: Then there must be a lot of private schools around?
Jack: Yes. But some are also bad. You have to choose carefully.
Me: Is this situation happening only in Hyderabad or is it the same in the whole of India?
Jack: I think whole of India is the same. Even in Delhi.
After some moments of pondering.
Jack: But the rich gets so much richer. You see, those people with high paying IT jobs, more than 90% of them comes from rich families. People like us, like them (pointing to some road side people), will never be able to afford that kind of education. You also have to know people to get in.
Me: What about healthcare? Do you all get free healthcare?
Jack: The government hospital is free but there are so many people. You have to pay middle persons to get an appointment.
Me: What about those outside clinics? Do you have to pay as a citizen?
Jack: Oh yes. Those hospitals (they call clinics hospitals too) charge about Rs100 to Rs300 per consultation. Pharmacy fees is separate.
I then recall going to one of these hospitals and indeed this is so. I paid Rs100 for consultation and about Rs200 for medicine.
Me: I don’t quite really understand this. India’s tax regime is crazy. They tax you for almost everything and at very high rates indeed. Where did all these tax money go?
Jack: I don’t know. Maybe building roads.
Me: But roads won’t cost that much money.
Jack: But the middle person takes a lot of money. Even the MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) takes money. A road that costs maybe Rs50,000 to build, they will bill the government as Rs50lakhs (Rs5,000,000). A lot of money gets spent that way. For example, in government schools, the school provide lunch for the children but the food there is terrible! But who made the money? The middle person! There is too much corruption in India.
Me: What then you think is your future?
Jack: I don’t think I have much future here in Hyderabad. I do not earn a lot. I don’t even have a bank account. My daughter is 8 years old now and in 10 years time, she will get married. Where am I going to get the dowry money?
Me: How much is the dowry, normally?
Jack: For us, maybe about Rs1 lakh (Rs100,000). Sometimes, the other party can ask for Rs2 or even Rs3lakhs. Depends on how educated is the male family. The more educated, the more they will ask.
Me: This is absurd. It should be the other way round.
Jack: Yeah, but this is how it works here. The Rs1 lakh or so is just cash. I have to prepare for some gold, buy TV, fridge, beds, etc. But the male side will bear the cost of the dinner.
Me: And after all these, there are still so many cases of bride burning! What’s this place??
Jack: Yeah, it is not easy to live here. I am now looking for a job in Dubai. My brother is there and he is helping me to look for a job. If I go there, maybe I will have some chances. I don’t mind working hard. Any hard job I can do, not only being a driver.
Me: Well, all the best to you. By the way, our company has operations in Dubai too. Let me know if you need some help.
And by this time, I have reached home, with a copy of the June’s edition of the Harvard Business Review in hand and the British Library card in my pocket. And I begin to think, what has all these magazines and libraries got to do with a normal, struggling but hardworking Indian. But I believe it has a lot to do with them. Give India some time. It will catch up.
Jack: So Sir, what plans do you have tonight?
Me: I have an appointment to watch a movie tonight at about 6pm. I may go in their car. Anyways, I will call you half an hour earlier to confirm.
Jack: What about your laundry, Sir?
Me: Oh yeah. Maybe you can collect it and pass to me this evening.
Jack: Ok. Thank you.
Me: Thank you.
Wow, it has been a long journey. The whole conversation above actually took place in parts and in between my stops.
India is really a mystery. Incredible India!