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The thumb rules

“It’s not so much a matter of principle as of scale,” said my friend. That summed up our interest in the matter nicely. We were contemplating the board at the National Museum Delhi announcing ticket prices. It’s ₹20 for Indian nationals and ₹650 for foreign nationals, 32.5 times higher. Why, we were asking ourselves, were prices set at those figures. Why not, say, ₹20 and ₹300 or, for that matter, ₹10 and ₹1,000 respectively?

We weren’t troubled by the principle that foreign nationals should pay more than Indians. “Let’s live with it,” my friend said. “As yet there are more foreigners in the world than Indians, around 6.3 billion of them and a mere 1.3 billion of us. Let’s assume that that majority of foreigners is richer than this minority of us. If they aren’t, they shouldn’t come here, we don’t want them. Let’s accept that all Indians braving exposure to our heritage and culture deserve subsidised rates.”

I was happy to assume, accept and live with it. But my friend and I, we’re reasonably numerate. We like to know why and how particular numbers cross our path.

But understanding the scale of differential pricing in entry fees for foreigners and Indians to Indian tourist and heritage sites proved challenging. “There has to be a formula or policy of some kind,” said my friend. “It can’t just be arbitrary. It might be an official secret, though.”

There is a wildly divergent range in the difference between prices for Indians and foreigners. Museums seem to favour a 25-times multiple, ₹20 and ₹500 generally, but not always. The National Gallery of Modern Art, the Salar Jung Museum, and the India Museum Kolkata go that way. Tourist sites, however, diverge somewhat more. The Taj Mahal, at ₹50 and ₹1,100 respectively, has a 22 times multiple. The Red Fort, The Ajanta-Ellora caves, The Agra Fort and other sites range differences between 13 to 17 times multiples. The Jaisalmer Fort, The Amber Fort Jaipur, The Mysore Palace and such make do with a very modest five-times multiple difference.

“It must be quite a complex formula, factoring in indices of location and visitor statistics, pegged to aggregate foreign exchange rates for the rupee,” said my friend.

I searched documents from the Ministry of Tourism and the Archaeological Survey of India for an explanation and came up with nought. My friend asked his friend who asked her friends. People like bureaucrats in the Ministry and the ASI, managers in the tourist industry. ‘No logic, they decide whimsically and take approvals and levy,’ seemed the in-the-know view. ‘It’s a rule-of-thumb thing’. ‘Whose thumb?’ my friend wondered.

‘It can’t be an official secret,’ my friend decided, ‘it would have leaked by now. But it can’t be totally devoid of logic, can it?’

My friend put his thinking cap on and came up with an explanation. For the benefit of all foreign and Indian nationals I state it succinctly here. ‘The key point to consider really,’ he explained, ‘is – whose thumb?’ Here’s how his argument goes.

The determination of the price difference has nothing to do with foreigners. It is not for foreigners to question but to pay. The price difference actually represents the range between what the Indian upper-middle class can afford and what they think poor Indians can afford.

The Indian upper middle class: that is, professionals, precisely the sort who work as bureaucrats in the government ministry or as managers in the tourist industry. They are cosmopolitan. They travel as tourists mainly to certain affluent destinations, usually in Europe or North America or Oceania, because they can afford to. They pay the ticket prices for tourist sites that touristy locals there pay, because they can afford to. They convert those prices into rupees and say, ‘Righty ho, this is what those foreigners charged us and we’ll charge those foreigners right back.’ Never mind niceties like Purchasing Power Parity and global and domestic financial disparities.

Back home, they feel altruistic about all the poor people about them and want to give them culture and heritage that such folk can afford. So they say, ‘Clearly, many of us Indians are poor, we should encourage the national spirit by charging us poor Indians less.’

So that’s how it works out. Foreign nationals in India pay what upper middle class Indians can afford. Indian nationals pay what upper middle class Indians think poor Indians should be able to afford. The precise prices depend upon which upper middle class Indian is exercising his affordability thumb. Understandably, these upper middle class gurus keep their own domestic tourist experience remarkably cheap.

suman.gupta@open.ac.uk


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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 11:16:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-thumb-rules/article26619753.ece

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