20 years on, Indians recall life before the boom

When economic reforms were launched 20 years ago this week, India was a country where you couldn’t buy a Coca-Cola, a telephone line would take a year to install and there was only one TV network.For New Delhi garage owner Promod Bhasin, 56, life before the financial revolution that began with the budget of July 24, 1991 was so different that now he shakes his head in disbelief.”You had to book a telephone call if it was to out-of-town, and keep ringing up the switchboard to see if it had ‘matured’,” he said. “Applying to get a new line at home was an endless bureaucratic battle.”

In the decades before 1991, India resisted almost all foreign investment, and international brands were scarce as the country tried to be self-sufficient following socialist and nationalist ideals.But the country was brought to the brink of collapse by stagnant growth under the “Licence Raj” — the planned economy in which the government controlled every aspect of business from labour to production.”All goods and services were so limited,” said Bhasin, now the father of two fashion-conscious daughters aged 23 and 18. “People would beg relatives travelling abroad to bring back Levi jeans and electronics.

“I had lived in America in the 1970s and knew what the outside world looked like. Here 95 percent of everything in the shops was Indian-origin and only a few very select places sold foreign products.”Bhasin tells how Indians making rare trips abroad had to apply for a daily amount of rupees in foreign currency, with any leftover sum being carefully returned to the bank afterwards when the balance was checked.”Now we have holidays to Malaysia and Thailand without worrying,” he said. “I think the government at last realised they just had to get India going again.”The reforms lifted many restrictions on foreign direct investment and opened the path to deregulation, privatisation and tax reform.

For Promod’s wife Minoo, 46, recalling India in the 1980s reveals the consumerist attitudes that dominate in today’s cities and towns.”I used to make baby clothes because what was sold was such poor quality,” she said. “Not many toys were available. People now buy stuff from around the world. It didn’t change overnight, it was slow, but everything is different now.”Some icons from India’s more insular age survive, such as Thums Up, a fizzy cola drink introduced in 1977 that thrived in the absence of Coca-Cola and Pepsi.Bought out by the Coca-Cola Company in 1993 as the markets were opened up, Thums Up remains a fixture at every roadside stall and is the biggest-selling soft drink brand in India, according to its makers.

“We drank Thums Up and there were only a few types of car, like the Ambassador which is still around,” said Naresh Kambiri, 78, who has owned a bookstall in Connaught Place in New Delhi since 1966.”There was (state-run) Doordarshan television but no private channels. What we wanted friends to bring back from abroad was chocolate, an electronic calculator or even a colour television.”Like many, Kambiri has mixed feelings about India’s headlong rush to modernity begun in 1991 by Manmohan Singh, then the finance minister and now the prime minister.”The choice is better but we worry about the system now. Where the money and power are is wrong and getting worse. Corruption is bad,” he said.”And now people are obsessed with foreign goods just to show them off, before we wanted foreign goods for use.”

Gurcharan Das, a successful businessman who wrote the bestselling book “India Unbound” about the nation’s transformation, told AFP that Indians should not be too nostalgic.”The budget of 1991 was a momentous moment, equal even to independence in 1947,” he said. “Exciting things finally began to happen and you could see people gaining a sense of pride and a belief they could decide their own fate.”The stories of before were horrific. You would tremble if a lowly government official called you to Delhi. Everything had to have a licence, but after 1991 you could set up your own business.

“Even among the poor, people believe they have a better life today than before, and that their children’s lives will be better again.What disappoints Das is India’s failure to push on.”Singh was more courageous then than now. We desperately need more government, bureaucratic, judicial reforms,” he said.”In 1991 they almost went further than was needed at the time. In a bonfire of controls and red tape, decisions were made and policies implemented very rapidly. We need to get that focus back.” – Yahoonews