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Tank half-full – Decarbonising India’s personal transport

On 15 March, the government introduced a policy to stimulate electric vehicle (EVs) manufacture in India. Government’s strategy for decarbonising transport leans heavily on its EV ambitions. The plan is by 2030, for 30% of new car, 70% of goods vehicles and 80% of scooters and rickshaws sales, to be EV. In tandem electricity will need to fully decarbonise over the next few decades.

The aspiration is for these vehicles to be domestically produced. Imports of EVs, like other road vehicles, are subject to India’s ferocious import duty regime. New vehicles with an import sticker price of more than $40,000 pay 100% import duty, those less than $40k pay 70% duty. Tesla has sought to negotiate a waiver for imports of its vehicles and promised to invest in a vehicle manufacture pant for local production.

To the government’s credit, it ignored Tesla’s entreaties for special treatment and last week’s announcement allows all foreign car manufacturer to import up to 8000 vehicles a year with a reduced 15% tariff, but in exchange they have to invest more than $500m in an Indian facility inside of 3 years and source half the components by value domestically within five years. In essence, a foreign car manufacturer gets to import 40,000 EVs at low tariffs over five-year netting around half a billion in profits (assuming $12,500 per vehicle) but in exchange has to invest those profits in creating a local EV manufacturing base.

Figure 1 illustrates why this encouragement for local manufacture is needed. There has been massive growth in electric vehicles but little of it is in EV cars.

Figure 1: Annual sales of Indian electric vehicles

*2023-24 sales are till end February. All data from the Vahaan database

Electric versions comprise around 4% of total scooter sales, a staggering 50% of three-wheeler sales but only around 1% of car sales. Three wheelers, a peculiarly Indian vehicle class, provides last-mile commercial deliveries and short hop taxi rides. Its electric-vehicle’s home turf since 3-wheelers small batteries don’t need dedicated charging infrastructure and the higher capital costs are quickly defrayed by lower operating costs compared to the petrol-engine equivalent.

The growth in 2-wheel electric scooter sales, the stalwart of Indian personal mobility, is mind boggling – a twelve-fold growth in just 5 years. The largest manufacturer Ola Electric only came into existence in 2017. Two other large companies, Ather and Okinawa, are also less than 10-year-old. Traditional 2-wheeler manufacturers like Hero and Royal Enfield beloved by bike enthusiasts are stuck in first gear. India’s best-selling 2-wheeler is the Ola S1 Pro. It costs around Rs1.29 lakh (£1,300) and has a feature list that could have been copied from Tesla’s: an Ola app, proximity unlock, decent display with maps, and regenerative braking. It’s 4kWh battery takes 6.5hrs to fully charge using a 750W charger that can plug in any wall socket. Its energy efficiency is 25 Wh/km.  The contrast with cars is significant the most efficient electric car retailing in the UK is the Peugot e-308 which manages 127 Wh/km, while the Tesla 3 achieves 150 Wh/km.

E-Scooters have taken off through subsides: namely the Faster Adoption and Manufacture of (hybrid and) Electric-vehicles policy. Its first version FAME-I ran between 2015 and 2019, FAME-II ran between 2019 and 2023. FAME I had a budget of Rs 359 cr (£35m) and subsidised the sale of to 280,000 vehicles. FAME II expanded the programme, with a Rs 10,000 cr budget earmarked to support the purchase of 1.5 million 2- and 3- wheel vehicles, 50,000 cars and 7,000 buses. Subsidies were paid at roughly Rs 10,000 per kWh battery ranging from around Rs 250,000 for EVs like the Tata Nexon to Rs 50,000 for scooters like the Ola Pro. The outturns to date are interesting. Subsidies were paid out to just 19,000 EV cars, 153,000 3-wheelers and 1.3 million e-scooters. The limited take-up for cars is not hard to understand. Who’s interested in buying a car when there is no charging infrastructure? In the February interim-budget, the finance minister hinted at the switch in tack away from consumer subsidies to strengthening the ecosystem by supporting manufacture and charging infrastructure.

This brings us back to where this article starts. But is the finance minister’s instinct for supporting electric car manufacture correct?

My Brompton with a Swytch electric enhancement

Given the lack of road space in cities and bottlenecks in the electricity generating and grid capacity, India should be careful about encouraging a switch to electric cars. Unfortunately, most of the locally manufactured EVs are pitching for the luxury end of the market developing electric versions of their premium ICE model like the Tata Nexon EV. Such cars, especially if the driver is using AC to keep cool don’t save much CO2. Indian power production emits around 800gCO2/kWh. Nexon EV claims an efficiency of 86Wh/km. But a real world test achieved a more credible 147 Wh/km, which translates into 117gCO2/km at India’s grid average carbon intensity. The Nexon petrol variant claims a fuel efficiency that translates into emissions of 133gCO2/km. The real-life EV using average Indian electricity saves a measly 12% of GHG emissions. Why not just buy a small hybrid?  Only the MG has broken ranks and is releasing the tiny MG Comet with a 17.3 kWh battery and claimed efficiency of 74Wh/km. Priced at Rs 8 lakh it is much cheaper than other Indian EVs. India’s top car manufacturer Maruti, India’s largest car manufacturer, is yet to launch an EV car. Its first launch slated for December is going to be an SUV.

Cars are not the answer to personal transport in urban areas. E-Scooters are the best option for many journeys, but another priority should be to make cities walking and cycling. But if you are really interested in optimising performance nothing can beat my Swytch-enhanced Brompton. I bought a 250Wh battery pack during the lockdown and often go to the shops and back just 20% of my charge (though I pedal too). This equates to just 5 Wh/km and spares me climbing 160m from the escarpment where I live to the sea-level and back. A few cities are starting to adopt cycling. Over the last few months, I had the pleasure of biking in Chandigarh for three days, in central Bangalore for a pleasant afternoon, and for a terrifying hour in the cycling death-trap that is New Delhi. (I’ll cover public transport in another blog.)

Chandigarh not Amsterdam

So next budget, expected soon after the election results are announced in June, I hope the finance minister spend more on the less glamourous transport options including infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists and maintains support for the e-scooters and rickshaws. The big unfinished business is heavy goods vehicles (40 and 50 tonnes) which ply India’s tiny urban roads and highways. These are responsible for 70 percent of vehicle air pollutants. Future blog.

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Waiting for monsoon

Image: P. Vaze, Salvadore de Mundo, Goa

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) declared a close on the Goa monsoon on 23 October, just nine days later than its long-range forecast’s predicted date. The start of the monsoon was similarly only five days later than predicted, and the volume of rain was just 6 per cent off.

Figure 1: 2023 Southwest Monsoon’s arrival

I am used to dark tales about climate change making weather more volatile and India’s rural economy being crushed. Indeed, I am currently co-penning a report on the physical impacts of climate change on India, to inspire banks to up their game on climate-aware lending.

This Blog isn’t about physical climate change and how the world is going to hell in a rickshaw. This month’s focus is my surprise at IMD’s well-founded conceit about its divination powers. Nothing in India is ever on time or as per spec; how does IMD get to swagger about its forecasting prowess?

In Alexander Frater’s meandering 1990 travelogue Chasing the Monsoon, the rains arrive in Goa on 5 June, just a few days ahead of this year’s 10 June. Despite three decades of greenhouse gas emissions, there’s been hardly any change. (The book predicts that India’s population will grow to 1.2 billion by 2050 – a grotesque underestimate of our population growth rate).

India takes the business of forecasting the southwest monsoon seriously. In 2018, IMD bought the Pratyushand Mihir supercomputers, reputedly India’s most powerful computers, to improve its Mid-April (First Stage Long-Range Forecast – FSLRF) and May/June (Second Stage Long-Range Forecast – SSLRF) forecasts. Only the US, UK and Japan Met Offices have comparable facilities. Such is the economic import of IMD’s forecasts, the RBI reviewed the models’ performance.

The IMD’s record on long-range monsoon forecasting has been patchy. It failed to predict the droughts of 2002 and 2009, and in an evaluation conducted in 2019, RBI found no correlation between the IMD forecast of the volume and the actual rain.

RBI also compared IMD’s forecasts with outputs from other global long-term weather models, which forecast the globally significant El Nino and La Nina phenomena. Back then, USA’s NOAA and Australia’s BOM offered better predictions of extreme monsoon years than India’s own models. I could not find any published evaluations of IMD’s performance since the purchase of its supercomputers.

Monsoon plays a big part in India’s annual prospects. Former President Pranab Mukherjee quipped the monsoon is India’s true finance minister. Around three-quarters of India’s annual rainfall arrives between June and September. Around 70 per cent of Indians live in villages many of them directly or indirectly depend for a living on rainfed agriculture.

View from my back window across the year

The volume of water that falls is awesome Deluge in Aldeia. Goa receives an average rainfall of 2900mm a year, five times London’s annual precipitation, and mostly mainly during monsoon. The pounding water cracks our estate’s laterite paving steps, craters the roads made from adulterated asphalt, and transforms the arid brown and ochre landscape to viridescence. Goa’s already substantial population of snakes, insects and birds go on a breeding frenzy. This year, we have to be on our guard for mosquitoes as they’re carrying virulent strain of dengue.

Figure 3: Paddy fields in Salcete ‘breadbasket of Goa’

Driving round Goa, it’s still possible to see why predicting the timing of the monsoon is so critical. Soon after the rains arrive, the ancient sluices are opened flooding the reclaimed Khazan land and month-old rice is swiftly transplanted from the nursey fields to the newly flooded paddy fields. Before the flood, the ridges and water channels have to be repaired and the fields manured to ensure the rice is ready to be harvested in September. Sadly, the manicured fields seen in Figure 3 are increasingly rare sight as farmers age and their children are drawn to better-paid urban jobs. The peculiarities of Portuguese law carving land into tiny parcels of subdivided land no longer provide income sufficient to justify cultivation.

To end, even if the supercomputers are unable to improve their long-term forecasts of monsoon, we can always rely on local clairvoyants like the weather babu.


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Solarising my home in Goa – running the numbers

When we moved to Goa, one of my ambitions was to install solar PV at our flat. I have always been a bit iffy about the merits of solar in the UK because of its low overall yield and the fact output is pitiful in winter when the UK grid most needs power. But in India, it’s a no-brainer. The country has terrific solar resources. Even rainy, coastal Goa receives 9 or 10 hours of sun a day for eight months a year and even during the monsoon five or so hours of sun. Plus, the national government is supportive, with a crazy ambitious target of 500 GW of renewable energy by 2030. The lion’s share is likely to be solar some of it smallscale. Goa’s state government has promised to roll out a new solar and renewable energy policy with Goa Chief Minister Sawant recognising (a little late): “With it being the land of sun and sand, Goa provides the perfect setting to harness solar energy.”

The subsidy is notionally 50% of the capital costs of the panels, but politicians have fiddled with definition every year and the basis of comparison is set at the lowest discovered rate in the country of Rs 37,640/kW. This represents a subsidy of 22% of the installation costs I have been quoted. In exchange, I have to use an installer empanelled by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) and buy Indian-manufactured panels.

Does the economics of domestic solar stack up? How easy will it be to get permission in our housing society with its Byzantine byelaws and sensitivities?

Our 14.5-metre square carport and oven of a car

We live in a first-floor flat, in a four-floor building. The roof belongs to our upstairs neighbours. We do have a dedicated 15 m2 car park space, where the asphalt gets hot enough to fry eggs, though the space is shaded in the afternoon. A solar canopy would help keep the car cool as well as provide power.

First, a primer of why solar makes sense in India. Goa gets over 1400 kWh of irradiation per square meter every year, two-thirds more than London. As the sun is slightly more vertical in the Indian sky an optimally angled 1 kW of solar panel gets 2000 kWh per year per panel compared to just 1180 kWh in the UK. Our enthusiastic installer is quoting Rs 280,000 (Rs 220,000 after subsidy) for a 3.24kW system. The panels are bifacial which means they can utilise light reflected off the car boosting yields by 30 percent offsetting the afternoon shading. We calculate the system will generate just over 12 kWh/d or 4.6 MWh annually. Over the day, generation follows a bell shape from six in the morning to six in the evening peaking at noon closely tracking demand from the fridge and AC units.

The generation over the year is also pretty steady compared to the UK’s peaking in the searing hot summer and dropping back during the cloudy monsoon period of June to August. UK in fact gets slightly more sunshine than Goa in July, but yields are pitiful in winter when the UK will really need power for heat pumps.

Daily energy of sunlight per metre square across the year central UK and Goa  

We have only lived in Goa for a few months so no annual consumption data. Projecting from the bills so far, we look set for around 6.7 MWh. That’s barely a third of our combined electricity and gas use in the UK! I check my numbers to make sure there’s no mistake. I thought the air conditioning would cause a big upsurge in our electricity use. But it hasn’t. An AC is basically an air source heat pump plumbed backwards (rejecting heat outside and cooling the inside), an AC unit delivering 5 kW of cooling, adequate for our living room, draws only 1.5k W of electricity.  Contrast this with the 18kW of gas used by our combi-boiler busy unnecessarily heating all the radiators in the house. In actual fact, we don’t use the air conditioning much, since the 75 W ceiling fan keeps us cool most of the time.

I forecast the solar panels will generate around two-thirds of our annual energy consumption all for the princely down payment of Rs 220,000 (around £2,200 which was roughly our energy annual energy bill in the UK).

It sounds like a no-brainer. It would be except, that electricity in Goa is unbelievably cheap, so our bill is just £240 a year, barely an eighth of the cost in the UK. In India, the state government owns the Distribution Companies (DISCOMs) which distribute and supply power. They hold household prices ruinously low running up losses, and often racking up unpaid debts to the merchant generators that feed into the grid. Goa operates a rising block tariff where the first units consumed in a month are much cheaper than later units further subsidising low-use households. Our first 120kWh of electricity per month is charged at just Rs 1.6 / kWh, a tenth of the tariff in the UK. Subsequent units are more expensive but the highest slab we pay is still only Rs 3.9 / kWh.

But the cheap electricity and low consumption means our solar panels will save us around two-thirds of our bill, barely Rs15,000 a year giving a payback of around 14 years.

I still want to do it, but you can see how policies to provide household customers cheap power impede the take-up of domestic rooftop solar. The flip side is that commercial customers who aren’t subsidised will find it much more profitable.

Anyway, we now have a quote, and we have the acquiescence of the other five owners in the building. But that’s only stage one of the process. I now have to contend with the non-existent housing society that runs the four hundred villas and flats in the estate, and the developer that manages the external facades of the building.

I will report back with an update in a few months. I have a hunch that doing the sums and getting a quote was the easy bit.

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Recent Indian Media I’ve been Consuming

I’ve enjoyed immersing myself in the local media and it’s an easy way of familiarising myself with India.  Luckily loads of material is available in English, making it very easy. Here are the things I’ve stumbled across to help me get acquainted.


I’m not a big consumer of Indian movies so I’ve gone for two recent box office hits which are streaming so easy to locate.

RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt) – was India’s top-grossing film in 2022. It’s basically a team-up of two badasses, one a tribal villager avenging the abduction of a young girl by the British governor’s wife. The other, seemingly a local British police officer, is revealed to be another irate Indian wanting to avenge the genocide of his village by the evil Brits. It was apparently inspired by Inglorious Basterds and is if anything even more violent.

Pathaan – a Mission Impossible-style vehicle for the ubiquitous Shah Rukh Khan who plays a disgraced RAW agent (India’s CIA). There is an unlikely partnership/relationship between a Khan and an ISS agent (Deepika Padukone) to fight off a smallpox armageddon from the bad guy. Great fun.

TV shows

There are some really good Indian shows streaming on Netflix and Prime. My two favourites touch the vast gulf between the urban elite and the rural majority.

Panchayat: A bitter-sweet comedy about a metropolitan engineering graduate who takes a job as an official in a remote village while studying for entry to a prestigious university. It’s a gentle satire on rural politics. He works for the local Pradhan (village mayor) and feuds with the imperious MLA to pull resources into the village to build latrines, pave the road and sort out trifling disputes.

Decoupled: is a hilarious account of a collapsing marriage between two Delhi hi-flyers, writer Arya and his financier wife Shruti, who decide to continue living together for their daughter. Arya’s arrogance and outspokenness constantly get him into trouble, and Shruti delights in deflating his massive ego. In one episode, their disgruntled driver tired of their condescension abandons them and returns to his village. When our couple goes to the sticks to retrieve him, they are so unknowing of local customs, they almost get lynched. The finale episode was shot in Goa just a short walk from where we live.


The Elephant Whisperers is an Oscar-winning documentary about two south Indian tribals in Tamil Nadu who foster orphaned elephants Raghu and then Ammukuttu raising them from infancy. The outdoor photography is beautiful, and the bond between humans and elephants is so strong it’s impossible not to feel the wrench when the elephants are rehoused by the forestry service (their employer). The film gives some idea of the resources the national and state forestry service pours into Indian nature conservation – around a fifth of India is designated as forest including reserves for tigers, desert species, and mangroves.

Saxtticho Koddo (The Granary of Salcete) is a short film about Goa’s rice farming culture chronicling the ceremonies, songs and dances that predate the arrival of the Portuguese. High rice yields were maintained for many generations by the collectively organised creation of canals and terraces, which represent human endeavour equivalent to building the Grand Pyramid many times over. Farmers had a repertoire of rice cultivars for local palates and to combat pests and disease. Now few young Goans, especially once educated, wish to remain in the fields. The film mentions intermediate technology inventions to semi-automate the back-breaking planting and harvesting of rice seedlings in the tiny plots, and the arrival of more middle-class lifestyle farmers into the countryside.


I liked Chetan Bhagat’s Nick Hornby-esque One night @ the call centre (2005). The title’s a bit of a giveaway. Still, if you’ve ever wondered about the lives and ambitions of Hari and Sacha on the other end of the helpline, this book gives a cheerful account of the five staff taking advantage of a computer hitch during their shift to motivate one another to pursue their real passions.  Bhagat’s first novel, which covered the stresses of India’s famously competitive but creativity-destroying Indian Institute of Management course, was adapted into the famous movie 3 Idiots.

A complete antidote to Bhagat’s slushy silliness is Deepti Kapoor recent crime saga Age of Vice (2023). This literary state-of the-nation is set in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Goa has a cast of mafia, journalists, politicians and idealists. The accounts of the character’s dissolute destruction are painful to read, especially since much of the suffering is dished out on princeling hero Sonny by his crime-overlord father. His crime was plotting to redeploy the family’s ill-gotten wealth to transform Delhi rather than just accumulate. Netflix has bought the rights to the book.


Given the amount of Indian Youtubers, I’ve found it hard to find a good local Indian podcast. Maybe it’s the clampdown on independent journalists. Both my picks are supported by USA endowments but hosted by Indian journalists.

Grand Tamasha (big fuss in English) is hosted by Milan Vaishnav (based out of George Town) and supported by the Carnegie Foundation. Every week it spends an hour interviewing authors of major new books or creatives. I picked up a lot of book suggestions from this.

Ideas of India is hosted by economist George Mason University-based economist Shruti Rajagopalan. As the title suggests every two weeks, she interviews some of the smartest thinkers usually, but not exclusively from India, ranging from central bank governors (Dr C. Rangarajan) to spatial planners (French World Bank consultant Alain Bertaud). These aren’t interviews, these are proper discussions with Shruti debating their evidence and offering her own libertine insights.


I’ve picked up a lot of non-fiction books about recent Indian affairs but there’s only one I can wholeheartedly recommend.

India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha is a 944-page political and social treatise. The third edition covers the period between Independence and finishes with Prime Minister Modi’s handling of COVID. It’s a wonderful book, with warts and all, treatments of the major political figures and their major pollical challenges, religious and linguistic schisms. Reading it you start to appreciate the formidable challenge Nehru and his able deputy Vallabhbhai Patel faced creating a secular, democratic country from the bloody disintegration of the sub-continent and the integration of the nominally independent princely states (which accounted for a third of India’s area). It’s hard living in the West to appreciate how fractious relationships have been with neighbours (four wars with Pakistan including one to create Bangladesh, two with China) a skirmish with Portugal to liberate Goa. The economy has switched from a highly nationalised ‘socialistic’ state, a deliberately ambiguous term adopted by Nehru, which his daughter Indira Gandhi extended to the slow economic liberalisation started by Naramsimha Rao which continued under Congress and BJP to this day.

I’d love to hear further suggestions in the comments.

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Establishing my Indian identity

Who am I?

Don’t worry, this article isn’t going to go all jingoistic or introspective. It tackles the knotty issue Indian returnees face accessing numerous online and offline services – proving they are, who they claim. Authentication of IDs hinges on a handful of critical documents – PAN cards to prove their (financial) existence, Aadhaar Card to prove their address, a driving licence and an Indian mobile number which provides traders an entry point to unending marketing texts. (I am not joking; some cash registers need a valid phone mobile number to complete a sale.)

India has fused its obsession with tech with its love of needless bureaucratic complexity to make life with these documents less predatory, and life without like an episode of Black Mirror.

So, what are these documents, why were they developed, and how easy are they to get hold of. And what happens to those on the wrong side of the ID face-off?

The Permanent Account Number (PAN) is a ten-digit alphanumeric number, issued by two private companies – NSDL for online applicants, and UTI-TSL for paper-based applications – on behalf of the Income Tax Department. The UK equivalent is a National Insurance Number. (An interesting aside is that the code’s fourth character identifies the class of the applicant. ‘H’ signifies Hindu Undivided Family, and ‘J’ an Artificial Juridical Person, gratifying ChatGPT but leaving fractious, non-Hindu families beleaguered). You need a PAN to open a bank or savings account, purchase a car, insurance, jewellery, or property, apply for a phone number, and pay more than Rs 50,000 (£500) at a hotel or restaurant. The rationale for demanding PAN numbers is that India has a big problem with black money, and making buyers disclose PAN numbers cracks-down on crooks’ efforts to clean their loot.

On paper, all that’s needed to acquire a PAN card are two photos, proof of address (PoA) and proof of identity (PoI). In February, I first tried the online method but got stuck finding an acceptable PoA. I went to the UTI-TSL office to see if my bank account statement or tenancy agreement worked. The scrum of people outside the office would have terrified the All Blacks. I couldn’t get close enough to the counter even to pick up an application form. Reluctantly, I did what I had vowed not to do – got an agent. She deemed my bank account statement and tenancy agreement were useless. Only government-issued documents could be used, or affidavits by elected politicians. The agent instructed me to use a relative’s address as proof of an Indian address. My application got rejected twice before the resolution of my relative’s Aadhaar card satisfied the NSDL. After ten weeks, I was a proud owner of a PAN card enabling me to pay income tax.

The Aadhaar card (a twelve-digit number and small booklet) started in 2009 as a voluntary scheme of rationalising government citizen databases. UIDAI administers it. Enrolment has been a wild success, and 99.9% of Indians have a card. Name, address, gender and date of birth are included alongside photos, fingerprints and iris scan biometric identifiers. Routine use of the card has reduced parasitic intermediaries from inserting themselves between Indian citizens and their entitlements to welfare benefits, work schemes like MG-REGA, food rations, and subsidised fuel (LPG). The government is linking Aadhaar to PAN cards and India’s electronic payment systems allowing millions of unbanked Indians with a secure payment system. It was used 2. 31 billion times in March 2023 alone. In the UK, HMRC and DWP maintain separate and unlinked databases of taxpayers and claimants.

Increasingly the private sector demands an Aadhaar card, with its reliable biometric identifiers, to prove ID. Employers are said to use the card to track employee workplace attendance.

So how do I get one? The success of the enrolment programme meant that most Aadhaar centres were closed just before we arrived, and the rules governing new applications were quietly removed. I travelled twenty miles to the nearest remaining centre in Goa and was told (at 11 am) that the officer had gone for lunch, and to come back after lunch. I bullied the receptionist into showing me the latest staff circular, which essentially said to come back in March, maybe April when the new rules would be revealed. It turns out, foreigners can apply for an Aadhaar card once they have lived in India for 182 days. So now I wait.

Indian mobile phone numbers are another must-have. All sorts of online and offline transactions require you to submit one-time passwords (OTPs) to complete the sale. Officials use texts to communicate time-critical information. For my sleeper train ticket to Delhi, carriage and seat number were delivered via text. So too updates about my PAN application. No wonder India has 1.2 billion active mobile phone numbers, a higher penetration rate than Europe. The competition between Indian mobile providers is ferocious, with four major suppliers. Two were set up by the warring Ambani brothers Airtel (Anil till bankruptcy in 2019) and Jio (Mukesh), Vodafone-Idea (now divested from Vodafone UK) and one other no-ones heard of.

Getting an Indian SIM card is less straightforward than in the UK, but not hard. You quickly hit the familiar chicken-and-egg issue of supplying an Indian address and PAN card which many foreigners won’t possess. Luckily the telephone service providers were happy with my wife’s PAN card and property documents, and I got in on her shirttail. This paved the way for localised (and vastly cheaper) versions of Spotify, Apple Store and Google Pay.

I can legally drive in India for a year using an international license. I hope this will give me enough time to obtain an Indian license. This should be issued to holders of a valid international license. The online application took five-minutes and I got a reassuring email saying I should “visit the concerned office with required forms and documents along with this receipt”. Again an acceptable Proof of (Indian) Address will be needed, which sometimes gums up the process. An American neighbour who moved to India a year ago needed an ‘agent’, assisted by a Rs 14,000 under-the-counter payment, which overnight sorted out the mysterious obstacle holding up his nonconforming address. Such under-the-table payments to agents are all too often needed to access public services and licenses. According to a 2007 academic article by IFC staffers, which included a fascinating behavioural experiment, the likelihood of passing a driving test was unrelated to the ability to drive. The arbitrary failing of test candidates was simply to steer them towards ‘agents’. Sadly, for the bureaucrats, much of the bribe went to the agent rather than the bent bureaucrats.

Life without valid ID documents is possible, but awkward.  At a car showroom, I asked what I needed to buy and register a car: PAN number to pay the road tax…fair enough, but the Aadhaar card was needed to prove my ID. I have plenty of other identification documents I protested. The salesman said he’d give his permitting contact in the RTO (regional transport office of which Goa has ten employing 350 staff!) a call. He got back a few days later, saying a small fee could be paid to smooth the way for such an irregular application. He was being blunt, that’s how things work here.

The diktats about better regulation and plain English which swept over UK and the EU public sectors haven’t made it to India yet. It carries on with its pre-Independence mindset. These processes are a throwback to the Raj, when the bureaucracy was a weapon of subjugation and rent extraction, rather than a service provider. IT permits India’s bureaucracy to become more streamlined, but it faces resistance from the vast army of people employed (and sometimes profiting) from the old license Raj. David Graeber would have developed a more textured and nuanced Bullshit Jobs thesis had he done his fieldwork in India. This sort of makework, a term commonly used in India, but I’d not heard before, is frustrating for us and often for many public-minded officials too.

And therein lies the conundrum for India, the obstacle to better public services isn’t technology but what to do with the army of bureaucrats and agents that evolved before the streamlining provided by the technology. And this is before ChatGPT sends another shock wave of redundancy to many of the pen-pushing rigmaroles of obtaining ID documents. 

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