Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Helsinki Diary-II

The presentation of papers kicks off on day 2 at the Grand Marina Congress Center right opposite my hotel. It's a two-storied building with several conference rooms, large and small. As in such conferences, there are parallel sessions on various topics: banking, education, stochastic frontiers, total factor productivity, etc. Delegates move from one room to another depending on their interest. Mine is banking. The participants are from all over the world but there are not many from North America. I am one of two Indians at the conference.

The sessions are well organised. About 20 minutes for the presenter with five minutes for questions. Not enough time to do justice to issues arising from a given paper but that is something that participants do "offline" during the coffee and lunch breaks. Food is laid out on two tables. Unlike in the typical Indian conference which swarms with attendants, there's nobody behind the counters- again, a reminder that manpower is costly. When the break is over, a couple of ladies, with aprons tied around their waists, materialise from nowhere and clear the tables without fuss. Within minutes, the lobby is spotless.


There's no point hanging around for lunch- not much to take care of a vegetarian. I head for my room and munch tepla along with chundha, which I had had the sense to pick up Indubhen's in Ahmedabad. (This is a place from which people buy snacks to courier to relatives and friends pining for Indian savouries and sweets elsewhere in the world).  I have picked up several varieties of yoghurt and protein bar from a nearby supermarket. My lunch is done in all of ten minutes.

I make my way to the Uspenski Orthodox Church located a few hundred metres away from the hotel. Built in 1868, it's the largest Orthodox Church in western Europe. It's built on a hill and appears to ascend into the skies. The Orthodox Church dominates in Finland, something the country has in common with Russia.  (Ditto  for Greece, a point PM Tsipras has made in talking ominously of his nation's long-standing ties with Russia). The architecture is strikingly reminiscent of that at IIMA, with the red brickwork clearly standing out in the distance. The golden cupolas are magnificent.

I ascend a steep stone staircase leading up to the Church, crossing tourists moving in the other direction. I'm told the tourists are mostly Chinese and Japanese. There are some very old people in the crowd- one elderly man can barely walk and is being helped by a girl. I wonder how he made it up the stairs in the first place. There's no admission charge and no security, perhaps, not such a great idea considering that an icon was stolen from the Church about a decade ago.The balcony one level below the Church entrance gives a great view of the city. I could have stood there for hours taking in the view and enjoying the weather.


There is a wide range of papers in banking. The impact of financial services on industrial structure and development (one important question that came up was whether small, local banks translate into more lending for small enterprises); Sources of productivity growth in Indonesian banking; Bank branch operational performance; Sources of return to scale of US banks; and so on.

My paper is on performance of public and new private sector banks in India in the post-reform period, using what is called a pooled sample. The conclusions are striking: between 1993 and 2011, there was a trend towards convergence in performance between the two categories of banks. Only in 2011-13 did performance diverge. And the divergence happened because public sector banks chose to be exposed to infrastructure in a way in which new private banks did not. The infrastructure sector itself was impacted by non-economic factors such as regulation, lack of clearances, etc. I conclude that performance in Indian banking has been ownership neutral. Policy prescriptions based on a snapshot of performance in recent years, such as the ones made in the P J Nayak committee report, are thus inappropriate.

My conclusion is not novel. There is a wide range of studies that have arrived at the same conclusion but these were done much earlier. What my study does is to validate the conclusion for a much longer period. Strangely, neither the media discourse nor government policy has been informed by the evidence thrown up by the academic literature on the subject. People keep parroting the same nonsense about the superior performance of private sector banks.


In the evening, I head for Esplanade Park, just past Market Square. The Square itself is filled with stalls selling cherry, plum, strawberry and banana, a wide range of fresh vegetable and lots of sea-food. I sit on a stool facing the sea, the wind blowing lightly, and savour a delicious cup of freshly squeezed orange juice.

Esplanade Park has come alive. There is a band playing on stage. The chairs are filled with mostly old people. (The adverse demographics of Europe is manifest on the streets). Then, a group of dancers dressed in traditional costumes hope on to the stage for a round of folk dance. The glass cafe, Kappeli, opposite the stage is more nearly 150 years old. It was a hangout for the likes of Jean Sibelius, the famous music composer of Finland. (Finlandia is one of the famous compositions of the country- you should listen to it on You Tube).

The music and the luxuriant vegetation on the park are wonderfully soothing. There must be several dozen such places in Helsinki where people can hang out and relax. In material terms, life is made for people in such places The income level is high, medical care of high quality is assured and so is social security. There are parks, swimming pools and saunas in abundance (an estimated two million saunas for a nation of five million!).

In much of the developing world, including India, life is harsh, unrelenting and the main cities virtually devoid of beautiful public places. When you step out, there is very little to lift the spirit. Paris is, perhaps, the finest example of a city built to enthuse and energise its denizens. China is a luminous exception in the developing world. There is, however, a downside to the comforts of the Nordic region. People have to deal with a truant sun- I'm told by a conference participant that depression is high in many of these places and so is suicide. Not all the cafes and parks and upmarket shops can make up for a plain sunny day.

There is a reception for the conference participants at City Hall, just off Market Square. This is the building that houses the Mayor of Helsinki and his administrative staff. There's a brief welcome speech by one of the assistants of the mayor. The City Hall, he says, is meant to receive important visitors "such as yourselves"- there are broad grins in the audience. Food and wine are served in a high-ceilinged room lit up with chandeliers.


It's time for a tour of the city. There are two basic options: a straight one and a half hour visit to the main sights and a hop-on-hop-off tour which enables you to get off and explore places and get back to a bus when you are done. I opt for the former. I have a flight to catch in the evening. Besides, it's impossible to do justice the museums, concert halls and other places in a hour or so.

You need to stay in a place for at least ten days if you want to do justice to it. You must use public transport, including trains, to get a feel for it. And, of course, a lifetime is not enough to explore New York or London (my two favourite cities, I spent five years as a student in the former.). That's why I've always felt that the seven-day tours of eight cities that tour operators offer are a dumb idea- there's nothing to these other than being able to tell yourself that you've been there.

I board a bus at Esplanade Park. The driver greets every single passenger warmly. There is a young girl to shepherd us around. A commentary is available on the audio system in 12 languages. It's raining hard so the windows have streaks of water on them. The snaps one takes end up with gashes.

Off we go. Over the next couple of hours, Helsinki is revealed in all its splendours. There's the Senate Square with a variety of important buildings. The government Palace which houses the PM and his cabinet, on the opposite side is the main building of Helsinki University and adjacent to these is the Helsinki Catherdral glistening in white. A university opposite the office of the PM? Given the security paranoia we have in India, this would be unthinkable. I can't seen any sort of security anywhere in the Square, much less gun-toting commandos. It's a different world.

Other sights fly past in succession. The upmarket residential area which houses the embassies and the Helsinki rich- it's set on a hill facing the sea, the houses surrounded by acres of greenery; the Museum of Contemporary Art; the National Museum; the central office district which includes the biggest supermarket in Europe; the Central Bank; the Finnish Parliament; the Olympic Stadium; and the Sibelius memorial. All along the route, elegant cafes and parks spring into view. Helsinki was able to host the Olympics in 1952; we dream of hosting one in the next decade. That one fact
epitomises  the gap in standard of living. I mustn't sound too harsh. There's a world of difference between creating prosperity for a land of five million and a land of 1.2 billion.

The bus drops us at Senate Square. It's raining hard but I think it would be a shame not to visit the Helsinki Cathedral. I climb the steps leading up to the white stone monument. As I enter the Church, a communion is on with a priestess presiding. I take a seat. The priestess says a few words, then the music starts playing. I am not a religious person but the ambience in the Church gives me a flavour of what the religious feeling is all about, a sense of beauty and a sense of the sacred.


I await the taxi that will take me to the airport. The receptionist at the hotel tells me it's safer to book one than to bank on getting a taxi at the stand right outside the hotel. She doesn't tell me that pre-booking costs an extra five euro- commercial instincts are the same everywhere in the world. I am charged ten euro per hour for the five hours I have spent past the check-in time. In India, if you have stayed in such a place for four days, they would cheerfully waive extra charges for late check-out. If they charged extra, people would start howling.

I keep looking around the lobby for signs of the driver. Finally, I see somebody at the door holding a placard below his waist. I missed him earlier because he happened to be wearing a suit. With his spectacles and gray hair nicely brushed, he could pass for a distinguished academic. He picks up my bag and takes it down the steps. The vehicle is a mini-van. I tell him I had asked for a cab. He smiles, "The fare is the same". He keeps up a steady chatter of comment on the places along the route. He will park his vehicle near the airport and cycle back home, he tells me. No wonder he looks so fit.

The check-in and immigration counters are done without fuss. I am soon at the check-in counter. I head for the loo. There's a heavy stench as I enter. I feel almost exultant- this happens in the developed world too! The crowd again is overwhelmingly Indian and middle-class.

A girl is going around offering her laptop to sundry passengers. I figure she's taking some sort of feedback about the airport. I see our aircraft parking outside the boarding gate just hour an half before the departure time. I know we are gong to be late. Sure enough, we depart late and arrive in Delhi half an hour past the scheduled time. At Delhi airport, I make a beeline for Vaango and gobble down idli-sambhar.

Helsinki, you won my heart.


Anonymous said...

You should publish your Helsinki Diary as a travelogue Mint may be interested

T T Ram Mohan said...

Thanks anonymous, that's indeed gracious of you.


chandramouli said...

Now I need not go to Helsinki. Your description of the city has taken me mentally there without a physical presence. Fantastic notings.

chandramouli said...

Fantastic description of your short but sweet trip to Helsinki. Now I need not go there, you have already mentally taken me to Helsinki with out the need for a physical presence. Thoroughly enjoyed your writing.

T T Ram Mohan said...

Chandramouli, thanks very much for your generous sentiments... it's this sort of feedback that keeps me going.


K.R.Srivarahan said...

Very well made out, Sir. I hope that the writer in you will prompt you to write many more books. Is there a misplaced dot in the following sentence?

"There's a world of difference between creating prosperity for a land of five million and a land of 12. billion."

T T Ram Mohan said...

Srivarahan, Yes indeed, thanks for pointing out. I have made the correction.


Atul said...

Very well written Sir!
I just came back from Germany ( Munich and Berlin) and have very very similar thoughts. You echoed my sentiments well. One big difference I see ( from your writing and my experience) is that Germany is much cheaper than the Scandinavian countries and yet provides top-notch First-world standard of living. Your experience/thoughts on this?