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In India, It's Survey Mania


Now to India and NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves. Here's the latest in his series, Letter From India.

PHILIP REEVES: In India, people can ask some pretty direct questions. It's not uncommon for someone you've just met to inquire, without embarrassment, how much you're paid. But the questions I found myself facing the other day were a new experience.

I was on a train, looking out of a window at the flat, hazy expanse of rural India sliding by. This wasn't any old train. It was the Swana Shitabti(ph) - or Golden Express, the pride of Indian railways - speeding south from the city of Amritsar to the capital, New Delhi.

Tickets on Indian trains are cheap by American standards. Though this was a five-and-a-half-hour journey, it had cost me less than $30 to get a seat in first class. This was where I was when a man from the railways walked up and solemnly handed me a piece of paper.

In India these days, it's rare to visit a luxury hotel or restaurant without being given a form seeking your opinion on the food, the staff and the general ambience. Some hotels bombard you with so many of these surveys, you feel like complaining.

This, I thought somewhat wearily, must be another one. But this one was different. On Indian trains, the bathrooms are usually basic affairs on a par with the portable toilets used by American soldiers in the deserts of Iraq. They vary from clean to, well, the stuff of nightmares.

The bathrooms on our train were fine, more or less the same as all the others I'd seen, except for some strange, new plastic fittings sprouting from the iron walls. That was what this piece of paper was about. Our carriage, it declared, was equipped with what it called personal hygiene dispensers to make our journey stress free. It wanted to know what we thought, in detail.

We were to award marks from one to five, starting with the soap dispenser. What did we think of its location? Was it convenient? What about the paper-towel dispenser? What did we think of its looks and its finish? Was the toilet roll conveniently located, and what about the quality of the toilet paper? Without so much as a snicker, my fellow passengers filled out their forms with the air of students anticipating excellent grades.

India's consumer boom is making companies far more conscious of customer service. I guess that's a good thing, but there are times when you wonder if it's going too far. Just a moment ago, while I was writing this letter, my phone rang. It was the man from the mobile telephone company. Could I spare a minute, he asked, just to answer some questions for a survey? Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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You know, Luke, even I get tired of NPR's kind of seriousness sometimes. And then I hear something like Ofeibea Quist-Arcton and Philip with his sort of personal story about being on a train and finding - it works.

BURBANK: I don't know how they do it, because I have enough trouble just navigating through the waters of living near Culver City and getting to work, let alone taking some, you know, rickshaw somewhere and having all kinds of experiences. So it's pretty cool when you get to sort of look into their life a little bit as to what they're going through.

CHADWICK: All right. More DAY TO DAY just ahead. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.