Thursday, 18 November 2010

Keeping in Touch in India

I've just started writing for ExpatArrivals - an online resource for expats across the globe. Keeping in Touch in India is my first article for them.

Keeping in touch with family and friends back home during your stay in India is easy and the options are many, especially if you're an expat in one of the metros (New Delhi, Gurgaon, Bombay/Mumbai, Bangalore/Bengaluru, Madras/Chennai, Hyderabad, Calcutta).

Internet, telephone, mobile phone, and post are available and service standards are quite good. Online news sites are accessible with any Internet connection to help you keep abreast of current events in your home country and most Indian newspapers can be viewed online, so you can always stay informed.

Using Internet to keep in touch in India

Until a few years ago, Internet in India was unreliable and sporadic, with only government players to choose from. Fortunately, better sense prevailed and today expats can choose from quite a variety of services and service providers. Internet speeds are still lower than a lot of developed countries, but with the sanctioning of 3G, which should be in working order by 2011, things should improve.

Internet connections

Dial up connections are possible but the speed can be extremely frustrating. Since you are charged for the time you spend online, this can get very expensive and hence Dial up is no longer a popular option.

DSL and Broadband are the two leading forms of Internet connectivity in India.

The major DSL providers in India are Airtel, BSNL Dataone, Airlink Broadband, Reliance Communications and Tata Indicom Broadband. For Internet access via DSL, you will need to have a DSL land line installed.

For most broadband connections too, you will need to have a land line installed, but speed is generally faster than DSL and monthly download limits are generally higher.

Internet costs and service providers

Costs vary depending on the company and the packages on offer (download "x" amount each month for a fixed sum, or pay a higher amount for unlimited downloads). The major broadband providers in India include BSNL, Tata Indicom, ZeeNext, Railwire, Cable Internet services, Airtel, Sify, MTNL, Tikona, DSL, Reliance, Hathway, YOU broadband and Connect Broadband.

Some major cable operators provide internet services along with their cable services. Sify and Hathway are well-known recognized providers of both. But organised cable providers are a recent phenomenon in the Indian marketplace. The majority of cable television service providers in India are not formally organised, and they operate in small areas.

Internet caf├ęs abound across India; even in smaller towns. Rates are pretty reasonable, around 60 Rupees per hour, or less. However, hotels charge much more.

While WiFi technology is rampant and you can get it for your home or office use, the concept of free WiFi is not yet popular in India. If you want to be connected on the go, then the best option would be to go for a Blackberry or a smart phone; for more frequent use a "data card", which is a mobile Internet device which you plug into a USB port of your laptop, is recommended.

Reliance, Tata and MTS provide the best connectivity in this segment.

Using telecommunication to keep in touch in India

There are multiple fixed line (land line) providers in India. This includes the state run BSNL and MTNL, which have been in the running since inception, and the private newcomers Bharti, Reliance and Tata Teleservices.

Expats will need to provide identification proof and proof of residence at the location where you want to get the phone installed. Make a refundable deposit and in a couple of days, you will be good to go.

Fixed lines offer discounted rates in the evenings and on holidays. To dial internationally, you will need to pay a higher deposit.

The international code for dialling India is +91 and each city has its own STD (Subscribers Trunk Dialing) code. Delhi - 11, Gurgaon - 124, Bombay/Mumbai - 22, Bangalore/Bengaluru - 80, Madras/Chennai - 44, Hyderabad - 40, Calcutta-33.

Phone booths in India

There are manned phone (PCO) booths on most major streets across the country where you can dial local, international and mobile phones. A meter attached to the phone you are using will show you how much the call costs in real time, and then you pay the person at the booth,once you're finished. You can also ask for a receipt for the calls you made.

Payphones are common only in Airports where you prepay with coins to make local calls. Some of these phones may allow you to make calls to mobile numbers.

Using mobile phones to keep in touch in India

Mobile telephony (58% penetration) has completely overtaken fixed lines (3% penetration) in the race for connectivity in India. Fixed lines are generally used only because they are a prerequisite for a stable Internet connection or at offices.

The reason for this is that mobile companies have infrastructure which makes it easier for them to offer new connections in remote locations than fixed lines. With fixed lines you pay local rates for calling within the city, but pay higher rates for outside the city also called STD (Subscribers Trunk Dialling) calls.

With a mobile connection, expats can pay the same flat rate for the entire circle, or state (with the exception of Maharashtra) and there are discounts across circles if the person you are calling also uses the same mobile services provider as you do.

Mobile service providers also offer closed user groups (CUG's) to companies, where all registered mobile numbers of employees working with the company get free or highly discounted call rates when calling each other.

Initially, mobile telephone provider licenses were limiting and it was difficult for people who travelled a lot to find a service provider who operated across the nation. Fortunately some of the restrictions have eased and service providers have formed alliances which allow their subscribers to travel across India with almost seamless connectivity, except for a few areas.

Jammu and Kashmir and some parts of the North East still have a lot of restrictions on mobile telephone connectivity because of security and insurgency issues. But other than this and a few blind spots between cellphone towers on long distance roads, you can be constantly connected on the go while you are in India.

Mobile phone costs and service providers

The major operators in this segment with pan-India presence are Vodafone, Airtel, Aircel, Reliance (GSM & CDMA), Tata Indicom, Idea, BSNL (except Delhi and Mumbai), MTS and Virgin CDMA. Tata Docomo, Uninor and Videocon. Other than these larger players, there are some smaller operators who operate in a very few circles but provide good service. These include Connect – Punjab, Loop – Bombay/Mumbai, MTNL – Delhi & Mumbai, S Tel – Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh.

There are 2 payment plans with mobile telephony: pre-paid and post-paid. At times it may seem like the calling rates and schemes with pre-paid are much better and more reasonable than those on post-paid. Rates and plans keep changing, so they can be extremely confusing especially if you consider the small print. It is recommended that expats choose a provider depending on connectivity in your base location, and commonality with the people you call the most, as calls will be discounted.

SMS (text messaging) comes with a basic plan, but you may need to pay extra or give instructions to your provider if you want MMS (multimedia messaging), international roaming, Internet access and other options.

You can buy your phone and Sim card separately in India and upgrade your phone at any time. There are no lock-ins barring a few exceptions.

Blackberry services are provided by most major operators with the major ones being Vodafone, Airtel, Idea (Recent launch), Tata, Reliance, Aircel, Docomo and MTNL/BSNL. Blackberry chat is a cost efficient way to stay in touch with friends and family across the globe who also have a Blackberry connection.

Due to security and other issues, mobile telephony is highly regulated by the government and an array of paperwork is demanded before you are sanctioned a Sim card.

Documentation for prepaid connection includes:

  • Proof of Identity
  • Photographs
  • Valid passport
  • Visa
  • Local Reference
  • Local Address & Contact Number
Documentation for postpaid connection
  • In addition to the above, the subscriber needs to provide Standing Instructions to a bank for bill payments.
Companies often take Sim cards in their own name as COCP (Company Owned, Company Paid) connections & provide them to their employees. In such cases, the onus of payment lies on the company. When the connection is taken in the name of the employee himself/herself, all valid documentation as described above has to be provided. When the onus of payment lies on the individual, the individual has to sign a Standing Instruction form.

When the companies officially declare that connections are taken for expats, valid copies of passport and visas have to be provided.

Other forms of Telecommunication in India

Satellite telephony is illegal in India.

VOIP services like Skype are partially available in India. They can be used to dial numbers outside India and to make Skype to Skype calls. Calling Indian MSISDNs from Skype is not yet available as a service in India.

Phone cards in India

Phone calling cards are available in India, but they are not as popular as abroad.

MTNL Delhi has a product called the “Virtual Calling card” (VCC) which enables customers to use any MTNL landline/PCO to make calls using VCC.

Vodafone WCC (World Calling Cards) are also versions of Phone cards which allows the customer to use the card on any Vodafone India phone for making a call.

Mobile Companies have now launched several calling cards with reduced call rates to specific destinations covering US/Canada/Middle east/Europe etc. They are not heavily advertised but they do exist and can be purchased from certain locations.
  • For Example: Calls to US/Canada are now at Rs. 1.5/min with Vodafone ISD cards. Similar rates are also offered by Airtel & other operators. This has reduced ISD rates considerably in India. Landline companies in India have also launched cards which can be used only on their network for calling.

Using postal services to keep in touch in India

The Indian Postal Service is the most widely distributed post office system in the world. Due to its extensive reach across the country, it also offers a range of supplementary services.

Post Boxes are located on most major roads and the mail is picked up once or twice a day, depending on location. Regular post takes two to three days to reach a recipient in India, except during the heavy mail deluge of the festive months from October to January. The Indian Postal Service also offers Registered Post and Speed Post facilities at slightly higher prices, for which you have to visit a Post Office.

Local Courier companies offer extremely competitive rates, with same day delivery in metros and next day delivery to most towns.

Media and News in India

India is a land of many languages and newspapers are printed in all the major languages. The Times of India is published across India. The Hindu is popular down South and The Hindustan Times has large readership in the North. The Economic Times is the most popular Financial newspaper in India. Newspapers like DNA, Mid-Day, Indian Express, New Indian Express, Deccan Herald and Deccan Chronicle are printed only in some locations but are leaders in their circles.

Expats who prefer to read a favourite publication from home will find some foreign newspapers available in the metros; although, they may sometimes arrive a day or two later than the date of release in their home countries.

Weekly and fortnightly magazines like India Today, the Week, Outlook are also great options to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the news. There are plenty of financial magazines in the market and quality of coverage is quite high. Time Out is published in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore and is a wonderful resource for local event listings.

Newspapers are door delivered every morning by the local paper boy. You can request the delivery of magazines, or subscribe directly from the company who will mail or courier your copy to you.

CNN, CNBC, Bloomberg and BBC are broadcast in India. Twenty-four hour news channels abound in all major Indian languages. NDTV and CNN IBN are good Indian channels for English news.

Almost all the major newspapers and news channels have an online presence. links to the top 5 stories from all the major news sites.

More information:

STD (Subscribers Trunk Dialling): codes for Indian cities
Mobile Phone Cards
India Postal Service

Saturday, 13 November 2010

2 Cookbook Prizes in a Week

Looks like the Diwali season has brought its own foodie blessings upon me. I had entered 2 food contests last week, before I left on my diwali trip to the inlaws place and both results came within 24 hours - since yesterday. I won them both. Yay!

The first contest was hosted by Rushina of A Perfect Bite. She had asked her readers "If you could be a spice, what would you be and why?
Best answer wins a copy of The Mainland China Cookbook! !"

My response was "Cinnamon - I go well with everything (sweet, savoury, drinks) and just add a subtle hint, yet my presence is not unnoticed. Also enjoyable completely undiluted and a bit of me, can be relished for hours leaving behind a fresh feeling."

So thats the Mainland China cookbook in the mail for me. I'm really happy with this one as it was released just a month or so ago and I haven't been able to find it in any of the Delhi bookstores or Flipkart either. Was thinking I would have to trek to Gurgaon to eat at Mainland China and check up if they had any books in stock. Given the high possibility of non availability, I've been postponing that for a bit :)

The Second Contest was held by Pratibha Jain and Jigyasa Giri of Pritya Books, the authors of 2 wonderful collections of Heritage Recipes: Cooking with Pedatha and Sukham Ayu. The Ayurvedic Cookbook - Sukham Ayu stood second in the category of  "Best Health & Nutrition Cookbook in the World" by the Gourmand awards (2009) organization.

The Contest asked "Can you think of a traditional, vegetarian, festival dish which is your favourite? Write a description and your reasons for liking it in 100 words".

Well, I do love to write about food and there are plenty of festive dishes that are so much a part of my memory. The best memories and experiences of cooking festive foods was the assembly line of my mom, her sisters and some of the kids that was set up around the dining table under the eagle eye of my grandma (to whom this blog is dedicated) - who supervised the proceedings and of course the sneaking of bits and bites of the fillings and batter during the processes.

Now to choose just one, a Vegetarian one (all dishes with eggs were out) and to describe it within 100 words, seemed nigh impossible. But this is what I finally sent in: "Kidiyos (khulkhuls) - maida and coconut milk shaped into little worms (kidis) on the back of a fork and then deep fried are my favourite kuswar (Christmas Goodies). As a special treat, one batch would be dipped in sugar syrup and left to crystallise. These treated kidiyos would have the sweet crunch of a layer of frosted sugar, followed by the crisp outer shell that had been deep fried and the soft heart that had not been directly exposed to the boiling oil. A combination of textures and flavors that even today make me miss grandma more than ever.

It won FIRST place. You can take a look at the other entries on The Contest Page. I would love to hear your favourites too, so leave me a comment.

I'm now waiting for my copies of the Mainland China Cookbook and Sukham Ayu.


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