State Treasurer Timothy Cahill Visits India
India is possibly the most diverse nation in the world. In terms of land area it is the seventh largest country, while in population it is second only to China. Within its geographical confines stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the tropical south, there are a dizzying variety of languages, cultures, ethnic groups, beliefs and lifestyles that few continents – let alone countries – possess.
When I arrived in India on April 16th, I was immediately struck by the noise and the sheer number of people – a populace seemingly everywhere and in constant motion. Describing India is nearly impossible, for the contrasts are everywhere. It is quite overwhelming and somewhat daunting.
I will never forget my first ride through the city of Mumbai. Hundreds, possibly thousands of people, living on the streets and sidewalks next to small mom-and-pop businesses selling everything from lemonade to shoes. One could almost feel the cultures colliding: the old India and its unwillingness to give up its customs of commerce, clothes and transportation side by side with the new and vibrant India – a nation of modern air-conditioned office buildings, food courts and shopping malls.
To spend any time in India is to visualize a country on the move. Things are changing rapidly in this democratic nation of over a billion people, with old certainties giving way to a modern world creating both conflict and hope. It was this omnipresent feeling of conflict that made visiting this country a true challenge. However, it was the hope expressed in the eyes and the voices of the people striving to reach a limitless potential that made the trip unforgettable.
Dr. M.S. Ananth, director of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, wisely summed up my challenge in this report when he said, “Every observation you make about India can be true, but I can find someone else who will say the exact opposite, and they too will be correct.”
My three weeks of travel in India began in the Mumbai (formerly Bombay) capital of Maharashtra, India’s most dynamic, cosmopolitan and crowded city. From there, I ventured north, then east and finally south, visiting five major cities in the process: Ahmedabad, Delhi, Agra, Chennai and Bangalore. While there I traveled the cities and their congested streets, sharing limited space with bicycle rickshaws, three-wheel open air cabs, trucks, Mercedes, elephants, camels, Ambassador cabs and especially cows – India’s sacred animal. I experienced India’s excellent domestic airports as well as one very memorable train ride from Delhi to Agra and back.
I was fortunate to have met with some of the country’s leading businessmen and women, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, politicians and health care professionals. Included as well was a visit to a small electronics business, having lunch with a retired civil servant and his wife, tea with a former Prime Minister, and dining with the Sharma’s, a middle class family of four, in their home. But my most memorable and rewarding experience consisted of sitting cross-legged on an old mattress in a sweltering room and listening to the remarkable stories of over 30 village women, who represented the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union with over 900,000 members.
One of my more memorable meetings while in Mumbai took place with one of India’s leading architects, Hafeez Contractor. He argued passionately that Mumbai will be unable to survive its projected future growth without the ability to build taller, denser housing units. His views put him at the forefront of an age-old conflict between the futurists and the preservationists. He seeks to build ever-larger and ever-taller buildings to house the growing number of Indian migrants who flock to the city daily. He argued that with a projected population of 30 million in 15 years, something has to give if Mumbai is to survive.
The ability to adequately house Mumbai’s multitudes and successfully develop its transportation infrastructure will determine whether or not the city becomes an International Finance Center (IFC) and a leading Asian destination. It is essential that neither side totally achieves its goals, for a city that disregards and destroys its past is a city without a heart – one not worth visiting and investing in. And a city that lives wholly in the past and believes that everything built before 1930 must be saved, is a city without a brain that cannot – and will not –benefit the vast majority of its citizens.
After Mumbai I visited Ahemdabad. The pace of the city is certainly frantic and the condition of the infrastructure is still somewhat primitive. But the work ethic and dynamic capitalism that appears to be taking place is nothing short of extraordinary. That dynamic quality extends as well to those like Mihir and Ela Bhatt, Arpita Chhatrapati and Deepesh Sinha who work just as hard to see that Ahmadabad’s poor and uneducated are not being left behind. I cannot imagine a developed Indian nation in the future without Ahmedabad as one of its leading cities.
Next I went to Delhi where I visited a small family-run electronics company, Sahasra, located in a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). In addition, I had lunch with M.N. Khushu, a retired civil servant who supplements his pension by renting out half of his home to a small technology business. Later that evening I had dinner with Ravi Kant Sharma and his family. Ravi is the director of marketing and business development for an automotive parts company. His son is studying for the exams to enter one of India’s prestigious IIT’s and his daughter hopes to someday become a lawyer. His niece Aditi is an up-and-coming Bollywood actress. All in all, a typical upper-middle class family in today’s India.
I spent much of my final days in Delhi visiting with the business and entrepreneurial leaders of the new India and visiting their companies in the cities of Gurgaon and Noida. These represent tier II cities that are growing rapidly outside the old major cities and housing many of India’s newest businesses, especially the high-tech sector. Infrastructure advancements in Delhi and its suburbs were by far the most impressive I witnessed, including the newly-built modern Metro that continues to expand into greater New Delhi as well as the suburbs such as Gurgaon. It was here that I connected with one of India’s leading entrepreneurs, Raj Dutta. Having already sold his initial BPO company to industry leader WIPRO, he has now partnered his newest venture – Quattro BPO Solutions – with Olympus Capital and sketched out a plan to create outsourcing solutions to U.S. companies through a variety of different operations.
Chennai, formerly known as Madras, is the state capital of Tamil Nadu and the gateway to the diverse culture of the South Indian peninsula. In the three days I spent there I experienced much of what this city has to offer.
I came away completely impressed by the productivity and quality of life in Chennai. Public and private sector cooperation has put the city and the state in an enviable position. Home to over 100 universities, two of the finest health care institutions in India, more power generated than is currently needed, and adequate infrastructure make this part of India poised and prepared to handle the growth and development in the coming decade.
My last two days in India were spent in Bangalore, often described as Asia’s “Silicon Valley” because of its thriving information technology industry. It is India’s fifth largest and fastest-growing city. While not there long enough to get a true feel for the city, I was able to visit the world-class Infosys campus and experience a different India.
It is virtually impossible to summarize a visit to India. As Dr. Ananth remarked, it is possible to be both right and wrong with your impressions. Two observations made by business leaders have remained with me long after my visit and may possibly describe India’s strengths and weaknesses better than I am able to.
First: for years Indians were embarrassed by the size of their population, but now they see it as a strength. There is no question that the sheer size of the Indian market and its continued growth creates economic opportunities unlike any other country in the world except China. The problem with this rosy outlook is that it ignores the growing inequities between the middle-class and those that continue to migrate into the cities seeking opportunities and often settling for life in the streets or the slums.
The second observation regards competition with China, the “800-pound gorilla” of the Asian economy. Because India is a full-fledged fifty-year-old democracy that has recently liberated its private sector, you see the cracks in society as soon as you step off the plane. In China, given its phenomenal growth and transformation, as well as its top-down autocratic form of government, it takes time before you notice the cracks.
In a democracy such as India with an abundance of newspapers, private television stations and a developed and unrestrained Internet, everything – both good and bad – is in public view.
The impatient in India, which generally includes the private sector, complains loudly that the democratic process is what has – and will keep – India forever a third-world nation always chasing China. I would argue – respectfully and after only a brief period of travel within the country – that this cumbersome, chaotic and oftentimes frustrating form of government is the key to its future success. The natural balancing inherent in a democracy, coupled with respect for individual rights and private property, is India’s greatest strength. If allowed to continue it will eventually lift up many more of the displaced and the dispossessed, and will bring them into the growing and prosperous middle class.
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