Under my byline

Road tip

Posted in Living by Rrishi on 15 March 2010

BS blog 14

One morning in Mumbai this February, a friend and I leapt into his trusty Hyundai Getz at 5 am to commence a driving tour of southern Maharashtra. The first stage was to be a pelt down the national highway towards Belgaum. The friend being a details fiend, everything was planned down to the minute.

Pretty soon this best-laid scheme of us nice men gang aft agley (1). On the long, long upslope before Khopoli on the Mumbai-Pune expressway, suddenly the engine appeared to stop transmitting power to the wheels. Stamping on the accelerator did nothing but make noise, and then we caught a whiff of something burning. Miserably, we pulled over, got out and threw open the hood.

It was still dark, and slightly chilly. We had halted on a turn. Giant container trucks crawled past with their engines screaming against the gradient. Neither of us knew anything about car innards, so my friend got on the phone to find a Hyundai service centre. Nothing in Khopoli, it turned out, nothing closer than Panvel, an hour away in the wrong direction. Towing charges in the thousands, repair charges in yet more thousands, time wasted in waiting.

While my friend was still working the phone, scarcely two minutes after we had stopped, a scruffy-looking man on a beat-up scooter trundled to a stop next to us. A mechanic, he said, with a repair shop just down the road, and he would fix what he said was a burnt-out clutch plate for thousands less than the service-centre quotes and in much less time. A quiet fellow, not much of a talker, with a humorous glint in his eye.

So that’s what we did. The mechanic left his scooter on the verge, we pushed the car to a gap in the expressway median and then coasted a good way downhill, off the main highway onto the old highway, off that onto a bumpy patch of land and finally into a tiny, lean-to garage. The mechanic had already called one of his colleagues standing by at the parts store, so the parts (original, we checked) soon arrived at top speed on another beat-up scooter. With the mechanic at the shop and a spare colleague, that made four men working on the car.

Day broke, a tea shop was the only other structure nearby, and we sipped and chatted relaxedly while the work continued. When it was done, the first mechanic hopped into the car with us, drove us back onto the expressway and up to an ATM. We gave him the cash, he waited for us to leave, then hopped onto the scooter of one of his colleagues who had followed us from the garage to head back, and that was that. We were on our way again, major repair complete, a mere four hours after the breakdown.

The point is: in India, the unorganised sector is often more efficient than the organised sector can ever hope to be, and much more responsive to the customer’s needs. The mechanic described their business method. One man circles back and forth on one section of the expressway, while another stands by at the parts stores and a third at the garage. Cars will break down, especially under the strain of a long climb; when they do, help (and profit for the mechanics) is only minutes away. The company service centres lose horribly in this scenario, by being more distant, more expensive, less personal, and less responsive. Had we chosen the service centre in Panvel, we would have lost the day. Instead we got a good, economical repair job and a free lesson in grassroots business thinking.

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2 Responses

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  1. Clinton said, on 16 March 2010 at 9:18 am

    Rrishi-

    Great post! Says a lot about the difference between the public and private sectors. And, since this difference also exists in America, it is yet more confirmation of the universality of human nature.

    Once, in New York, I went to the post office during the rush before closing time. The line was very long, the unionized government employees (who make $25-$35/hr) were generally in their 50s and 60s, they moved extremely slowly, and it took me a very long time to be served. I calculated my wait time, divided it by the number of people in front of me, and came up with a very large number (I forget what exactly) for minutes/customer served. Then I went to a McDonald’s down the block. The line was also very long, but the young workers (Latino immigrants, all in their teens or early 20s and making $6-8/hr) were running around like crazy. I was served very quickly. The wait time/customer was MUCH lower. Another lesson in the motivating power of private enterprise.

    Thanks for linking to my blog!

  2. Rrishi said, on 17 March 2010 at 11:10 pm

    I’d love to say “You’re welcome” but really, I’m honoured to link to your blog. It’s beautifully organised and of course, Theodore Dalrymple is often terrific (when one gets to read him on a non-paid site…).

    Your PO/McD comparison is fascinating, especially the cost comparison! In India, funnily enough, the experience of liberalisation in the last two decades has shown us some of the great benefits of the state sector — chiefly, that it’s often less annoying and sometimes (think banking) more efficient, NOW THAT it has been forced to compete. That laid-backness is a blessing when the private sector is bent on chasing you for your money and being crap at customer service after you’ve bought their product. The state sector is usually less greedy (not to say rapacious) than the private. I could go on; but I wonder if this is just an old-middle-class sort of perspective…


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