I thought that the politically correct name for the city was Mumbai, but many successful, well educated natives actually still prefer it’s original name, Bombay. This city of 18 million is almost beyond comprehension. Home to both Bollywood, India’s hugely successful movie industry and the world’s largest squatter village of one million people, Bombay is all the contradictions and extremes of India on steroids. Beautiful colonial architecture stands above sidewalks filled with crudely built shacks that house families that effectively are eating, bathing and sleeping on the street in plain view. I was told that almost half the city lives in these structures. I have no idea if it’s true, but where ever you go in this city the poverty is inescapable.
Several hundred yards from the Taj Mahal Hotel, regarded as one of the best in the world, was a sprawling village of tents and corrugated metal structures that housed an untold number of people. At night, to stay cool, people slept scattered about on the ground, one even on the hood of a stray car. The poverty is truly staggering.
In contrast, the upper middle class live with as many as nine servants, including a car and driver for each member of the family. Unless you insist otherwise they will attend to your every need. We experienced this visiting the home of friends. These servants often seem overly eager to please. They accept their fate, and both master and servant seem inextricably bound up together in a relationship that seems mostly beyond question. While I did not witness this myself, our host acknowledged that this at times leads to abuse.
The Indians also seem surprisingly willing to provide money to beggars, accepting that the theoretical social safety net meant to provide for them is largely nonexistent. While the notion that no one goes hungry might have some truth in the country side, it’s hard to imagine anything further from the truth in this city.
While we were visiting the new national budget was announced, an event of huge importance compared to the US where no one seems to notice, care or even understand its impact. Every newspaper and TV news show ran extensive coverage in both the days leading up to the announcement and afterwards. The impact of the budget on everything from the price of rice and mangos to the impact it is expected to have on individual public companies is analyzed and debated. This particular budget seems to move slightly away from a more pro-business agenda investing a bit more heavily in public education and transportation, agricultural price supports and other social services. To some surprise the IT industry, India’s prized and highly successful industrial sector was to face a slightly higher tax rate.
In some respects India is struggling to keep up with China’s more heavily planned economy. From health care to education, China has achieved higher overall standards. The come at a high price in terms of a non-democratic, much more highly controlled, less free society, but the progress in never the less impressive. India is, on the other hand, an amazing open, accepting and diverse democracy. Debate on everything from politics to cricket is expected.
The failure of small and medium sized business in the US to understand the opportunity for collaboration, the potential for purchasing services and the ability of Indian firms to provide high quality products is a loss they can ill afford. Departing from Bombay back to Delhi on Jet Airways, an Indian carrier, we received in economy class a better meal, on a newer plane, with outstanding service that puts the First Class service of most US carriers flying domestically to shame.
So what do I make of this experience? Some things are clear. I want to come back, more so that what I feel visiting most other countries. There is something happening here that I don’t want to miss and want to continue to struggle to understand. There is a huge business opportunity that must be figured out. As I kept reading the World is Flat during the trip, India is featured more prominently that any country other than the US. Whatever is happening to revolutionize business in the world, it’s happening at warp speed in India. The poverty is staggering, well beyond what I have ever seen or imagined. The slums in Bombay made the slums in Rio look like middle class housing.