Saturday, September 27, 2008

India's Future: Globalsensation?

Walking out of the international terminal in Delhi, India this past week, it was clear that we were out of our league, literally at the mercy of the second largest country in world. From all directions we were attacked by a barrage of “Taxi Sir”, “Tour guide sir”, “Cheap! Cheap!” With the exception of the kind family we stayed with in pleasant suburb of Delhi (Whom we had contacted through an acquaintance in Manila), Delhi and it seems many large cities in India can primarily be described as “extremely and persistently loud.” It was only after our first two days we spent touring the fascinating temples, forts mosques and finally the great Taj Mahal that we traveled to the West Coast of India and explored “smaller-town India” in the area around Pune. Pune, a mere metropolis of 6 million and nearly the same population of the state of Oregon is a favorite destination for over 127 large multinational firms from Europe and North America. Despite being a large auto manufacturing, call center, tech haven, Pune’s “noise level” was significantly muted compare to the perpetual traffic jam of Delhi and therefore much less stressful for making friends!

During our stay in Pune we met with the non-profit Ashoka for the first time. In short, Ashoka is a well-known supporter of social entrepreneurs around the world. Basically Ashoka inducts “Ashoka fellows” through a rigorous application process, that seeks to identify local leaders in healthcare, education, business law etc. These Fellows are selected based on their perceived ability to change national and continental policy in their respective fields within three fields. To help them along the way, Ashoka provides a three year living stipend to entrepreneurs and their families as well as an extensive network of fellow entrepreneurs, skill training and professional consultant. The evening we spent in Pune, we attended the national induction ceremony for all new Indian fellows, which allowed us the opportunity to learn about 20+ new ideas that hope fundamentally change public policy in India. For example, one fellow we visited, Asim Sarode, a “Ghandi-esk” human rights lawyer hopes to alter the reality of the Indian courts (and the US?): poor people are most always guilty. He provides completely free legal services to the incarcerated, sex workers and the homeless. Check out his organization Human Rights and Law Defenders.

After our meeting with Asim we headed to a meeting at the Pune Chamber of Commerce where city officials and a friend who is a local business leader were trying to convince the largest Belgian company in the world to open a few manufacturing facilities in the area. Walking into Pune’s Chamber of Commerce, constructed of spotless glass and white marble floors in contrast to the dusty streets and colorful stuccos of Pune we were lead to the “mission control” room of big business. On a solid wood conference table only fresh tea and biscuits sat between several optimistic Indian officials and two rather stiff and intimidating Europeans (My only contribution to the meeting was eating the entire cookie tray). After a polite exchange of introductions and a brief power point dictation about Pune’s desirable traits as an outsourcing Mecca, the Belgian execs sat and contemplated in uncomfortable silence. Just as chewing my mouth-full of cookies started to get awkwardly loud, the Belgians launched into an unexpected, but calculated attack on Pune’s record of development. One Belgian questioned: “Why is it that you have no expressways”
“But we do, Sir, just look at the new road to Mumbai” A local business leader retorted.
“Roads with cows and cross-streets are not expressways, why did you build a brand new highway without off ramps? The NEW road is practically useless” the Belgian countered.
“It is coming in the next 5 year plan, Sir.”
“The five year plan has lasted the past 30 years. What about schools for the workers, water supply for local villages and consistent power for businesses and homes? ”
Though after a brief pause the Indian representative proceeded to give a rehearsed appeal to optimism, it was clear that there was a fundamental, rhetorical question hidden in the Belgian’s interrogation: why are some countries developing and others developed? Why are some populations, ethnicities, religions, genders, geographic regions characteristically poor and other less so? Why can some developing countries time infrastructure to match growth and others not? At our meeting in Pune last week Austin and I had a rare and personal front row seat to big decisions that lead to globalization. Fortunately a multi-billion dollar, multinational Belgian company was asking questions that implied interest in INDIA’s social progress. In contrast, we later heard that U.S. firms seeking to invest in the Pune region have almost solely been concerned with property and profit incentives. I feel bad for eating all the cookies.



Krystal Maria Wu said...

what an amazing exchange you were able to listen in on... i think we all need to be asking those big questions of ourselves and trying to figure out what our own roles are as members of the "developing" world. thank you for sharing your beautiful story with us, and keep learning.

Kevin said...

How prescient you two are. With the "financial meltdown" going on here in the States, a Micro-Loan is the only way we are going to be able to raise cash. Who knew??!!

Eleanore said...

How difficult it is to change nations that have been in existence for centuries. After reading my second book about Iran and Shah Reza Pahlevi's move to westernize the country only to have everthing overthrown by the Ayotolla Kohmeni gave me some understanding of how much work there is to bring democracy, sanitation, and modern infrastructure to them.
Keep up the good work Austin and Sam!

Sheila said...

ahhh i love that uve been to my hood!