Simon Denyer

Reuters journalist, 1992-2010


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A little bit of history, a lot of therapy

Anant Rangaswami, 13 October, 2008


I spent Dashami reading Foreign Correspondent: Fifty years of reporting South Asia, a book that my colleague, Jim James, kindly lent me. The book is a collection of articles by a motley crew of correspondents, mostly, as the name of the book might suggest, foreign.

How does one describe the book? I wanted to call it a romp, but that’s trivialising the content and demeaning to the correspondents. A journey? Perhaps that’s a better word, but doesn’t quite do the collection justice. I don’t have a word, at the moment, which works better than journey. 

Time machine? Not good enough, but it’ll suffice for the nonce.

I write of the stops that I made which made me sit back and think of the changes in India.

How has the media landscape in India changed in the past 60 years? How has communication changed? 

Arthur Bonner, writing for The Atlantic in 1959, reports, “The daily circulation of newspapers in India, with a population of 400 million, is only 3.1 million, and one-third of these papers are in English. The dozen or so English-language papers are extremely important, since 99 per cent of the people are ruled by the 1 per cent who speak English.”

“There is no television in India, and there are only 1.5 million radio sets in use…”

“The Indian Airlines Corporation…. has only seventy-seven aircraft on regular service. More than two-thirds of these are decrepit DC-3s used during World War II.”

“There are only 400,000 telephones, or one for every 1000 persons.”

“There is only one motor vehicle of any sort, including motorcycles, for every 850 persons.”

I was 14 in 1975. I ought to remember this, but I don’t. This bit about Maruti and land-related issues, from a report by Lewis M Simons writing for The Washington Post. “Critics charge that were it not for his mother, Sanjay would never have been granted government approval four years ago, when he was twenty-five, to build a Detroit-style plant for the manufacture of a small car he designed and called Maruti, ‘Son of the Wind God.”

“Critics also say that Sanjay would never have been able to collect some $10 million to launch the project… nor would he have been allotted thousands of tonnes of scarce steel…or 297 acres of superbly located farmland, at a bargain price…”

“They (the articles) also traced the role played by the chief minister of Haryana state, Bansi Lal, in evicting 1500 farmers from land in Haryana, just outside New Delhi, for sale to Sanjay.”

Reminds one of TATA and Singur, doesn’t it? Except Sanjay Gandhi’s story had a happy ending.

1986, it’s telephones again. Matt Miller, writing for The Asian Wall Street Journal, says, “…only a fifth of all calls made in Calcutta get through. Of the city’s 250,000 connections, at least 60,000 are out of commission at any time…”

“There is a twenty-year waiting list for telephones in the city (New Delhi.)”

“Meanwhile, India’s 750 million people make do with 3.2 million telephones.”

I think Mumbai’s got more phones today than all of India did just 20 years ago. Fascinating.

1987, Matt Miller again. “The whole stock market has become Reliance.”

And now it’s two Reliances. Not quite the whole stock market, but still a large part of it.

2003, Manjeet Kripalani writing for BusinessWeek. “But four years ago, Chairman Ratan Tata plunged into the passenger-car business despite much skepticism. The result was India’s first indigenously produced car – the $6600 Indica… now he has put his team to work on his dream project: a car that will sell for only $2200.”

“Indian companies like ICICI can successfully take their models overseas because they are firmly anchored to their home market. A home market that is being constantly reinvented.”

Interesting that in the five years since this report, the Nano is priced almost exactly at $2200, currency fluctuations notwithstanding. And ICICI is about the only Indian bank caught in the sub-prime mess – because it went abroad!

And I can’t believe this headline, from The Economist, for a story written by Simon Long in 2004: “Sonia – and Yet So Far”. That’s from The Economist? Perhaps written for Sarah Palin, who might, at some future date, find The Economist her favoured source for news and analysis of global events.

2006, Amelia Gentleman writes in the International Herald Tribune. “Now, with its 83,000 dollar millionaires… new showrooms for Porsche and BMW are thriving.”

Guess with the turmoil in the last month, the number of dollar millionaires would have shrunk quite a bit.

What was the book, to me? Romp? Journey?

I’ve read the book in one, long, nonstop session.


At Rs 695, it’s cheaper than an hour at Aroma Thai. And delivers significantly better RoI.

Written by simondenyer

October 14, 2008 at 7:31 am

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