Trade revolution as India lets in mango pickles and hookahs

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The Independent Online

With a stroke of the pen, India's Minister of Commerce, Murasoli Maran, consigned a particular version of India to history.

Indians call it the "Licence Raj" or the "Permit Raj". Foreign visitors don't have a name for it, but they know it when they see it. Since the revolution in the quality of consumer goods has spread around the world with all the irresistible force of an Arnold Schwarzen-egger video, India's incompetence in manufacturing has looked increasingly eccentric and bizarre.

Mr Maran is putting India's cack-handed industries out of their misery in the only feasible manner - by letting in foreign imports. At the World Trade Organisation's behest, he published a list of 714 items on which what are called QRs (Quantitative Restrictions) will no longer apply.

It's a good list. For betel leaves, bidis (roll-up cigarettes), chewing tobacco, mango pickles, coconuts and coconut-shell hookahs, Indian consumers' horizons will no longer pull up short at the Arabian Sea.

Henceforth they can scour the world - probably via the internet - for all the hair-removing appliances, homogenised vegetables (not frozen), fresh lychees, natural pearls, rolled-gold jewellery, concrete boulders and personal weighing machines they may desire.

And slowly, perhaps, the world's identification of India with objects that do not, never did, and never will work properly will be carried away on the river of time.

But it has not been carried away just yet. Our first six months in India was a sort of Calvary of small domestic breakdowns.

The box of matches. You get through 20 before you reach one whose head does not snap off the minute it's struck.

The electric light bulb. It's true, we have voltage fluctuations. The response to that by the local operation of the Dutch multinational Philips is to sell a bulb that even a beggar can afford (11 rupees, about 15p), but which would last only a fortnight even if the current was rock steady.

The toaster. Philips, again, has gone native in style: its pretty, continental-looking toaster lasted a month. It still works, but you can switch it off only at the wall. And it no longer pops up.

The video cassette re-corder. Videocon and BPL, local electronics companies, take us back to the good old days of Ferranti and Pye. The recorder looked Japanese, so I didn't bother taking it out of the box in the shop. It never worked at all.

By experiences such as these one is taken back 10 or more years to the heyday of the Stalinist experiment, when every Soviet hotel bath had a huge soapdish that would not hold soap, and the room key was attached to the bath plug - the only way to deter guests from taking the plugs home.

India's manufacturing ineptitude was Soviet inspired, via Nehruvian socialism. But the unique Indian wrinkle was that it was not the slovenly, bureaucratic product of monopoly. Many of these useless match makers, electronics firms, etc, etc, co-existed in a state of apparently healthy competition with other manufacturers equally awful.

We in the West have all been spoilt by the cruel perfectionism of East Asian manufacturing. So you don't forget your first encounter with an Indian vacuum flask, which can never be fully opened or closed, and which does not flow but only dribbles. Or the portable alarm clock; you buy it without a qualm, delighted by the price, but are always being dug out of sleep half an hour early or late. Or the Hindustan Motors Contessa, a locally made replica of a 1968 Vauxhall Victor, which putters around reliably enough (the engine is a Japanese Isuzu) but throughout its life is in a state of slow-motion deliquescence - the window winder comes off in your hand, the clutch cable snaps, the sun visor falls on your head, the suspension gives out, the passenger seat recline function suddenly goes wonky, rendering your important passenger horizontal. I am waiting for the steering wheel to come off, like in the old films.

The inertia of the ages: that was India's element. One suspects it still might be. The East Germans and the Chinese snapped out of it, but in both cases it was an ideological affectation. Incompetence was never really their thing.

But it was India's thing, and still may be. Rugged individualists, they dig in their heels and fight for the right to sell rubbish.

This time next year, the last 700 items on India's QR list will be removed. Imports into the country will become completely free - and thousands of hopeless manufacturers, one imagines, will go to the wall.

Or perhaps they won't. MrMaran had comforting words for them on Friday, announcing this year's list. "It is time to eliminate QRs," he said, "as they now exist only in six countries. But domestic industry will not be affected adversely. Sufficient safeguards such as tariffs and anti-dumping measures will be available."

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