Alternative title – why moving to Switzerland makes financial sense for wealthy Indians.
In his novel “The Time Machine”, HG Wells tells of how an English inventor builds a Time Machine and travels to the year AD 802,701. By this time, the English countryside is inhabited by a tribe of naive vegan beings called the Eloi. Spending some time with them, he begins to believe that mankind has evolved into a homogenous and peaceful society. However, he can’t help but notice that on moonless nights some Eloi disappear – never to be seen again. He soon discovers that the earth beneath them hides a subterranean city inhabited by the Morlocks – a brutish and violent species that operates machinery that ostensibly keeps the world of the Eloi running. Though he initially speculates that the Eloi are a superior race – evolved from the upper classes of Victorian society, he soon discovers that on moonless nights, Morlocks steal to the surface and abduct Eloi – whom they devour. His view shifts and he decides that the Eloi are actually akin to cattle – raised and slaughtered by the Morlocks for food.
Though the beginning of liberalization ushered India into a new age of prosperity and consumption, people’s fortunes have differed. A small portion of the population that had access to an English Language education found it easy to rise in the IT industry and elevate their fortunes significantly. A larger portion of lesser qualified people, stuck in industrial jobs with negative wage growth (accounting for inflation) and shrinking opportunity – due to automation – have seen their standard of living and quality of life plunge. Even in the IT sector, which was the driver of middle-income bliss in this country; things have taken a turn for the worse as entry level salaries have failed to keep pace with inflation. Millions of India’s youth, clutching their worthless degrees, seethe in rage at the lack of opportunity and the social and economic inequity that they see. It is no surprise then that this anger frequently erupts in violence.
Whether the vicious sexual assaults by car-borne rape gangs reported in major Indian cities; the random lynching of cattle transporters; or the violent mobs that politicians seem to be able to summon at will, there seems to be clear divergence in our social evolution. Drawing a parallel to the Eloi and the Morlocks of The Time Machine may seem to be a crude and obscene oversimplification, but it seems clear that Indians inhabit two different worlds, and these worlds are becoming increasingly distinct.
There is the world of the gated colony and the high-rise condominium, and there is the netherworld of the shanty-town. Such polarity extends from the city to the countryside, where access to economic opportunity, education, and healthcare, is subject to the privileges of wealth and caste. Furthermore, people from these two worlds reckon life differently. Urban low-income Indians live in a tit-for-tat world, and often exhibit little more than contempt for law of the land and the social order of the urban privileged. The latter’s social customs – social drinking by women, and hugs as a greeting for instance – are considered to be a shameful adoption of western ways. The urban affluent on the other hand, thrive in a world of good intentions and gestures. Brutal rape of an infant? Oh – candle-light vigil. Someone got lynched for eating something that someone thought was beef? Aha! Silent protest. Someone got shot for standing up to a bully? An articulate Facebook post powered by a Gin & Tonic will do. The urban affluent live in a fragile illusion – in granite islands of comfort with fancy names that evoke images of Californian creeks, regal English country estates, or idyllic European towns. The minions that clean their homes, water their lawns and tend their offspring live in wretched shanties, where potable water and electricity are a luxury.
Crucially, the low-income groups are a larger vote bank than other income groups, and the political establishment understands this. No wonder then that political leaders across the country have the courage to stand before crowds and utter xenophobic, misogynistic, and communally inflammatory statements. Every time this happens, it offends the urban affluent – who take to Facebook and type their fingers raw; the masses however, rejoice that someone in power shares their views, and go out and vote for them. This is going to get worse, as recent moves in the telecom industry will take social media and curated content to over one billion citizens via inexpensive data services. With Social Media behemoths like Facebook creating ideological echo chambers, mind control of the masses will become a real thing.
Automation is already killing manufacturing jobs, and this is rapidly spreading to technology and services too. A fresh engineering graduate would be better off driving an Uber than seeking a job at an IT company. It is entirely likely that within a decade, the global workforce will comprise largely of angry gig-economy hustlers who will barely get by. Things will be worse in India, where the poor educational system will preclude all but the brightest from getting by in the new Economic order. Indian cities are already known for their lawlessness – this will get worse. Climate change is already wreaking havoc in agriculture – the largest provider of employment in the country. The imminent real estate bust will devastate opportunity in the construction sector, throwing millions of desperate, starving people out on the streets. This will be a windfall for leaders, as years of political outcomes have proven beyond doubt that impoverished Indians can live on illusions of nationalistic grandeur and delusions of piety.
As has been the case numerous times in history, people who have nothing to look forward to materially are easily motivated by bad ideas. This is the principle that drives religious fanaticism, violent nationalism, and other herd behaviour that takes the hard work of critical thinking and decision making out of human existence. If you look closely, these are the forces that drive the political agenda in India today. Are we evolving into a society of Eloi and Morlocks?
With violence increasingly becoming a standard part of political discourse in the country, and the convergence of political, economic, and ecological factors, India is on the brink of a security catastrophe. Though complex technological systems – engineered social media – would drive political and behavioural compliance, there will be physical risks, for which the Eloi will pay dearly. There will be times when the security of their urban sanctuaries will be breached, and Eloi will be taken, like they are even today, but these will be accepted stoically and forgotten the way today’s hideous crimes are.
As a resident or security professional, understand that the already high costs of security are going to rise substantially in India. If you live in Gurgaon for instance, renting a home with secure access to water and energy (read an RWA that keeps the water tanks filled and diesel generators for when government supply fails) costs a minimum of INR 45,000 a month in base expenses. Bills for these services will add a further INR 15,000 to your outflow each month. Foreign workers from prosperous nations often spend upwards of INR 500,000 per month on just rent and utilities to maintain a standard of living close to what they would have in their home countries. In comparison, an indulgent three bedroom apartment off Route de Pregny in Geneva rents for about CHF 3,500 – about INR 240,000 a month. So for those living in three million dollar Delhi homes – it’s cheaper to live in Switzerland – up the road from UN Headquarters. Compared to Delhi, the clean air and fabulous dining should make that a non-decision.
The fresh air that you have for free in Geneva (AQI 28 as on 17 May 2018) can be had in your Delhi home with a positive pressure air purifier, which will set you back about INR 2,000,000 in equipment and engineering costs for a three bedroom home. Energy costs for running this system will be about INR 10,000 a month. Do you want drinking water on tap? A whole-home reverse osmosis system will be about INR 1,000,000, with monthly energy costs of another INR 5,000 and yearly maintenance bills of INR 200,000. Of course you’re back in the haze the moment you step out of the door and you’ll get sick if you happen to swallow in a hotel shower. We haven’t even factored in women being free to walk around in shorts without being whistled at, groped, or raped because they were asking for it by dressing that way. Consider also the privilege of being able to totter out of Le Roi Ubu at 1 AM without the fear of being mugged or worse.
Is India getting better, the way so many people claim?
Will it get worse?
Given the socioeconomic trends so far, Yes.