March 12, 2008

Loaning Progress

Each day, well before the Mumbai Local comes to a halt, passengers prepare to jump off the train, expertly dodging those on the platform waiting to get in. Physical contact is well neigh unavoidable as you negotiate your way with or against the stream of disembarking passengers. There’s rarely a glance exchanged unless the collusion smacks of a deliberateness that hurts the other, or brings them to the ground in an embarrassing thud, for such is the hurry to be among the first to get to the over-bridge and across it that all forms of communication are held back until one is safely across the bridge to the East or the West (Mumbai Suburban local trains ‘split’ much of the city into East and West portions).

Squeezed in by travelers hurrying down the stairs to the railway platform to the sound of the announcer announcing train arrivals, disembarking passengers quicken their steps up the stairs to the railway over-bridge, eyes scouring for space to negotiate through the ascending crowd, latching onto slender openings between cascading feet, all for the extra step that’ll take them a step past the wall of people packed in on either side by hawkers calling attention to their wares: cheap watches, cheap clothes, toys, dried grapes, wallets, perfumes, vegetables, pirated CDs, and flowers among other things.

On one such morning as I skirted the rush hour crowd, dodging past people to the far end of the over-bridge a hand struck out at me just as I was about to run down the steps to hail a taxi. Seeing it materialize out of nowhere I took evasive action, my hand involuntarily bracing for contact even as it instinctively reached out to the pamphlet he held out to me. His hands were moving quickly, surprising people as they prepared to take the steps down the bridge on their way out of the railway station.

I doubt if Ankush More, a Marathi youth, saw the faces of people he was passing out the HSBC Pragati Finance Personal Loans pamphlets to. His hands were moving far too quickly in holding out the single page pamphlet to people for him to filter recipients for potential customers. Moreover the crowd was moving quickly as well, mostly office-goers hurrying time, people who presumably had more urgent things on their mind than personal loans.

HSBC Pragati Finance offers Personal Loans up to Rs. 50,000, starting Rs. 10,000, while promising ‘Easy paper work’ and ‘No security or guarantee’, a message not very different from those I see in local trains, staring out from compartment walls. I imagine the country must be awash with money to loan out to people if the frequency and scale of coverage is anything to go by. It is common to see banks setting up ‘loan counters’ in reception areas of corporate offices that bank with them as corporate customers.

For sheer volume of people railway stations are hard to beat. Ankush More would have learnt from experience that he had a better chance at getting exiting passengers to accept the pamphlet if he stood at the top of the stairs at the exit than somewhere along the way where people are in a hurry to get past, rarely pausing or slowing down for doing so would mean being bumped against by those behind, possibly to a tune of a few choice words.

Ankush does not process loan applications. He is employed to pass out the pamphlets that carry the name and contact number of the loan agent at the back. I ask Ankush how many pamphlets he manages to pass out on an average day.

“1000 in two hours, and I’m done for the day,” he replies even as he returns to the bunch in his hand.

I do a quick calculation. In a radius of 2 – 2 ½ feet presented by his outstretched hand, excluding people who either ignore him or are in a terrible rush, or those to whom he cannot get the pamphlet out quickly enough to pass it out before they pass him, a minimum of 500 people an hour need to pass within two feet of him to meet his target. And those he ‘manages to miss out on’ must surely equal these numbers if not exceed them, all passing within two feet of him in the morning rush hour!

“I mostly pass these out at railway stations. Sometimes I’m here, other times at some other railway station,” he tells me above the din.

Ankush is paid Rs. 3000 each month for the 30,000 HSBC Pragati Finance Personal Loan pamphlets he gives out.

I point to the slew of pamphlets discarded on the steps where people dropped them on their way down the stairs leading out of the station, and say, “Do people read what you hand out?”

He looks at the mass of bright red and white flyers strewn on the steps before replying, “Many don’t, but some do.”

Volume improves probability. Apparently those who read the pamphlet and are in need of a loan call up on the number rubber stamped on page two of the pamphlet. “Yes, some do call up on the number for a loan, other times they pause to ask me details,” he continues.

‘Pragati’ is Sanskrit for ‘Progress’. The irony in this case does not escape me as I turn to read the hand-out. I begin to descend the steps, and watch my step to avoid stumbling over, for it is a fairly long way down the metal and cement stairs. The others are doing likewise, heads bent to the task at hand. Like everyone else I step on discarded loan flyers at each step even as its bright red colours leap at me from where they lie, ‘progress’ively gathering muddy footprints as more feet land on them.

As I progress down the stairs step by step, each landing on red and white flyers strewn all the way down, I wince at the irony on reading the flyer exhort the reader with the words ‘Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja’ (Progress Step by Step), and how!!!


Sudhir syal said...

Haha.. Good one Anil.

Is this the first sign of India moving into the danger of a sub-prime crisis?

Banks - as do most sales organization follow the simple mantra. 30,000 flyers -> 1,000 interested -> 100 eligible -> 10 converted.

Want to make the 10 -> 20, simple process. Make Ankush distribute 60,000 flyers. Efficiency, filteration, optimization - Arrey all that is bloody over-rated! :)

Bombay Addict said...

Irony indeed Anil. least people like Ankush get an opportunity in this big city..

kenju said...

Don't you wish the people would at least drop them into a trash can? It looks so dirty in that last photo.

Anil P said...

Sudhir: Thanks. For 50,000 limit there's little danger of a sub-prime crisis happening, unless the volume increases substantially at one go with no repayments happening. HSBC counts on people being able to repay Rs. 50,000/- (~ $1500).

What is worrying is the aggressive solicitation for loans. I believe it would be a temptation to go for one where one might have managed to get by without one.

The irony, when you look at it from one perspective, is that HSBC packages 'debt' as 'progress'!

Two weeks ago the Indian Government had to write-off close to Rs. 60,000 crores of loans to small and marginal farmers (about 4% of all lending) leading to clamour for more write-offs. And whose money? Depositers' money! Taxpayers' money!

Bombay Addict: I agree. It's a job opportunity for the many Ankush(es) of the city.

The other irony is the flyer exhorting 'Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja' effectively exhorting the reader to 'progress step by step' when the reader actually progresses down the stairs step by step, landing his feet on the flyer at each step.

Kenju: It sure looks cluttered. Each day the Municipality workers sweep the stairs clean.

I wonder what visual associations might a person derive the next time they see the HSBC colours in an advt. in a magazine or a newspaper, more so after seeing their foot land on them each day. Surely, it cannot be a positive visual association drawn, not after seeing them (flyers) discarded so liberally beneath feet!

Which Main? What Cross? said...

And each station has its own speciality. For instance, at Elphinstone Rd., it's usually Cancer Cures.

Blogger said...

Very nicely written and it brings out the essence of what's happening in all the major cities in India. You come to Hyderabad and you will find the same situation - albeit it may not be HSBC

Smita said...

Read a recent report saying how banks were shying away from lending any more. And with all the negative publicity in the papers about goons trying to get back money from people...

A slice of everyday life, Pamphlets dirties those pavements too!

Marja said...

You've got a great way with words. I love the end "progress" step by step.
Your story reminds me of Holland with the busy railway stations. in NZ only one train a day passes with hardly any people

Seamus said...

There seems such a sense of manic desperation in proffering handbills like that.
Very descriptive and in the moment writing Anil!

Anil P said...

Which Man, What Cross: Absolutely. And they make for quite a variety.

Bl'gger: Thank you. Even here, it is not restricted to HSBC. The other day I saw a youth distributing Citifinancial flyers.

Smita: It would help to have banks scrutinise loan applications more closely. But if the distribution of flyers, and loan melas are anything to go by, then it doesn't seem like they will be holding back.

The infamous recovery agents, goons in disguise, managed to queer the pitch somewhat. They needed to be cracked down upon anyways. Hopefully this will make the banks exercise more discretion.

Marja: Thank you. Some progress this 'riding on debt' :)

I would believe there're few city rail networks, if any, around the world that carry as many commuters as the Mumbai City Rail Network does.

NZ must make for a pretty place to ride in a train.

Seamus: I wouldn't be surprised if he has another job lined up after he is done distributing 1000 flyers in two hours each day :)

Thank you.

novice said...

beautifully laid out!! makes for a thought provoking n enjoyable read!

adi said...

ye zindagi hai kaam ki tu kaam pe lutaye ja...

Shrinidhi Hande said...

The person outside Tidel Park Chennai (an IT Park) follows a slightly different process:

His first task is to scan people coming out of the building for their ID card. Once he locates an ID card hanging somewhere on their body, his next task is to identify company logo on that card. Once he extracts company name, then prefix it to “Special offer Sir/madam” and hand out the pamphlet.

So irrespective of which company you work, you get “special offer” which has nothing special in it…“TCS special offer sir”, “Satyam Special offer Madam”, “Ford Special Offer sir”…

I ask him, is there any special offer wherein I can take the loan but won’t have to return it… He laughs…

Anil P said...

Novice: Thank you.

Adi: :)

Shrinedhi: That's marketing isn't it? Selling the same product differently, here adapted to the circumstance presented by an identity in the form of a name tag.