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Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Signs of tough times ahead

Jayaram Perumpilavil sees an economic storm gathering on India's horizon.

In New Delhi

FOR most Indians, the global economic meltdown has until now been something that concerned ‘them’, not ‘us’. Even the news of the share market crash and fortunes being wiped out overnight has not caused them their sleep, as only a minuscule percentage of the 1.1 billion population has ventured into shares and mutual funds.

“What’s the fuss?” most wondered when Sensex, or the Bombay Stock Exchange Sensitive Index, soared from 12,500 mark in April last year to over 20,500 in early January. They asked the same question when the market tumbled to 10,527.85 points, its lowest close since mid-2006.

Even news of a non-resident Indian in Los Angeles, reduced from millionaire to pauper in the economic meltdown, shot dead his wife, three children and mother-in-law before taking his own life, or a family of four in Mumbai committed mass suicide after they lost everything in the share market, did not come as a shock.

Not surprising, really, in a country where farm suicides due to crop failure or mounting debts are not uncommon. Failed business, of late, has also been a cause of suicides.

In perhaps, the strangest fallout of the market crash, a 34-year-old housewife in the western city of Ahmedabad, who has been trading regularly and making a huge profit until recently, complained to a counselling service that her husband of 10 years is threatening to divorce her after she lost three million rupees.

But there have been straws in the winds that everything is not normal.

For once, those irritating calls on your cell phone, from telemarketers at all odd hours offering unsolicited loans, credit cards, insurance policies and attractive holiday packages have almost stopped, if not altogether. You almost miss them because those calls, though unwelcome, did give one a feeling of self-importance.

For some time now prices of almost everything have been going up – vegetables, meat, soaps, detergents, you name it. Popular restaurants, where one had to wait for a table if you have not booked one in advance, are less crowded. So are the footfalls at the malls.

Retailers report a 40 per cent drop in sales, even though Deepawali, one of India’s biggest festival, is just a week away. Normally, this is the time when there is a surge in sales because people not only buy for themselves but also to give gifts to relatives and friends.

Tourist operators report of bulk cancellations from the US and Europe that would affect a whole lot of people who depend on the tourist industry for their livelihood.

There is unease and uncertainty among the 1.5 million employees of the thriving business process outsourcing centres, or call centres, because of fears that the crisis in the US could lead to job losses. Already, according to reports, the mood in the industry has turned from cautious optimism at the beginning of this year to palpable apprehension.

Wipro Technologies Ltd., one of India’s top IT company, last month asked hundreds of its US employees to go on no-pay leave after it lost two of the biggest customers, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. According to reports since the middle of this year, the company had recalled many Indian employees from the US back to their bases in India.

But what probably brought home the seriousness of the creeping crisis was when TV channels showed pictures of scores of cabin crew of Jet Airways, India’s largest private airlines, protesting in front of the airlines office in Mumbai against the summary termination of their services.

In one blow, the airlines fired 1,900 staff. Many of the protesters who were shouting “We want our jobs back” had tears in their eyes. Some said they found they had lost their jobs only when they called the airlines office to find out why the company pick-up vehicles had not come to fetch them to work. Many of the cabin crew, all in their early 20s, said they had taken loans to do courses for airhostesses and other airline jobs and also to pay a security deposit of Rs. 55,000 (S$1,650) to Jet Airways.

This story, of course, had a happy ending. Less than 48 hours after they were sacked, Jet Airways chairman Naresh Goyal reversed the order and told all employees to report for work. He said he “could not sleep, could not bear to see their suffering,” though it is widely believed that it is political pressure that prompted his U-turn.
But while the Jet Airways story ended on a happy note, it could just be the signal of the gathering storm on the India’s economic horizon.

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