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Showing posts from January, 2006

False Hope At Davos

Its India and China again, this time at the World Economic Forum at Davos. To India's credit, much effort has gone in hardsell. To India's misfortune, much of this will remain that. Any new investor who gets swayed by the hooplah will want to visit this promised land. What he will see and conclude on landing in Bombay airport is best not left to imagination.

Let me first quote Bruce Nussbaum, assistant managing editor at Business Week and innovation and design columnist. "What I didn't realize was the enormous presence India will have at Davos this year. Billboards, buses, parties, sessions, workshops restaurants will all have an Indian theme to them. Delegates will get Indian pop and classical music, pashmina shawls and a cd with tons of economic data on it when they sign in. The Saturday night soiree will have Bollywood dancing and music. India's 115 person delegation will dwarf China's."

And let me now quote the first response that crops up on his column…

The New Republic And Some Old Problems

Last night my car stopped at a traffic signal in south Bombay, very close to the impressive Gothic Indian Institute of Science buildings. An old, wizened, lady holding two half-used strips of medicines knocked at the window. I didn’t respond. The knocking got louder and more urgent. She would not give up. My colleague and friend sitting next to me ignored the lady too. Then the knocking got to her. She rolled down the window and handed over some change.

Elsewhere at the junction, young boys were peering into windows of other cars, waving stacks of Indian flags. The old thin wood strip and paper flags have given to durable plastic ones. And they come in far more sizes and shapes than before. You even get little, round plastic stands that you can affix a small pole on. And keep it on your desk as a reminder. That India is a Republic, in its 57th year. Though for many people, even that reminder will not change their lives.

Bombay is looking positively energetic. Next to the restored Nation…

An India That Works ?

I have this image of Bombay grinding to a dead halt, as its vital arteries slowly get clogged with people and traffic. Its happening already, in smaller doses. And no one particularly cares. A proposal to get a sea-water transport project off the ground has entered its 30th year of discussion - I could be off by a few years. A proposal to build a sea-link with the mainland is now, possibly, in its 40th year of debate.

At this rate, we should be looking at projects that were initiated in the time of or last reviewed by Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-1979), Viceroy and Governor General of India in 1947 and see where we stand. I suspect not too badly off. The bulk of the infrastructure you and I use today, including railway lines, roads, airports, ports and water pipelines, were built before Independence. There are less active airports in India than there were in 1947. I would love to be corrected on this one.

Amartya Sen was bang on about argumentative Indians. Except that he did not put a…

Jammed On The Streets & Runways

You return to Bombay, after more than a month outside and hope that life is a wee bit simpler. In the city in specific and country in general. After all, the term developing nation ought to mean development. Actually, it only gets worse. I now have a term that defines the attempt to move from point A to point B: its called the sequential jam phenomenon. And I suggest you factor this into your calculations.

The highway leading to the domestic airport at Santacruz was jammed. Note that I was going in south to north (rush hour is normally in the other direction) at 8.30 am to catch a flight. I was tuned into 92.5 FM, the radio station I am usually tuned into while on the road. To my horror I discovered the hosts Jaggu & Taraana had switched subjects from the morning newspapers to discussing the same traffic jam. Obviously, the situation was worse, particularly on the other side of the road. Several callers were coming online to vent their feelings on the state of Bombay's roads.

I'm Desi, And I'm Cool Too !

The Cool Ambassador

"Have you seen Bluffmaster ?," asked my Indian-American friend's 9-year-old son. "No," I said, as I racked my brains to remember if there was a Dev Anand film by that name. "You must have heard the song Say Na Say Na," he went on. "Say Na to what. Well, no," I said. Then it dawned. This was a new Bollywood film.

I didn't recall hearing of it when I departed Mumbai and India a month and a half ago. On my return now, I learn the film had opened on the box office a few weeks after I left. So, I was not that off. Yet this young boy from a little town in the American Midwest knew all about Bluffmaster.

He has visited India only once when he was three. His parents, both academics and US citizens, have lived in America for close to two decades. That makes him a second generation Indian-American. He loves his Sony Play Station but is not obsessed with it. He plays baseball and basketball at school. And knows th…

The Pain Of Arrival

Rejected, With A Smile (The Terminal, 2004)

Is there some other way one can return to India, ie, not through its airports. I wonder how immigration officials at Bombay's port are, for the occasional sea-farer or sailor. Maybe nicer, since visitors are few in these days of air travel. But then you never know.

The reason is simple. Indian airports, Mumbai notably, are among the most abject in the second world. That is well known. But Indian immigration officials who could perhaps have countered the pathos that so swiftly envelops you on deplaning are worse. Where a smile could have made you feel welcome, you are greeted with an expression that typically ranges from bored indifference to a suspicious frown. Your first instinct is to run back.

Immigration officers are usually the first real taste of a country's persona. The infrastructure can be terrible but it's the people who leave a mark. Indians are known for their hospitality, even now. But Indian immigration officers don&#…

Fighting Terror, The Indian Way

Its a weekday evening of the new year. Like most days, the sky above London is overcast. Its very cold but fortunately not raining. Light snowfall has been forecast though. The west-bound Circle Line tube train from Liverpool Street towards Paddington is packed with evening commuters heading out of the City. This is one of the lines on which a train was ripped apart by a suicide bomber on the morning of July 7, 2004.

Most commuters are either reading their papers (The Metro newspaper comes free) or looking straight ahead into nothingness. Its warm within the train compartment. For most, it seems like a normal work day. Except for the security that is now omnipresent. For the first time I notice British Transport Police (BTP) getting in and out of the subway trains. At the busy Liverpool Street, a hub for trains out of London, BTP and other constables stand on corners looking warily at the hundreds of commuters walking past.

Signs all over say that you are likely to be frisked and chec…

Is India Shining Again ?

A 2004 Dig At India Shining Pic Courtesy: Frontline

Is India Shining all over again ? This was the question that was put to me somewhat rhetorically by Harvard Business School (HBS) professor Das Narayandas a week ago. We were seated in his warm, spacious offices with racks of book shelves at Morgan Hall in the HBS campus in Boston, Masachussets.

The warm room is a welcome change from the freezing, sub-zero temperatures outside. The lawns are covered with several inches of snow. Walking up the stone steps and into the heated confines of Morgan Hall is a relief, from the cold as much as the strong wind that whips your face. You really don’t see people walking around here in this weather. Most buildings in the campus are linked by well-heated, underground tunnels.

For a moment, I thought Narayandas was referring to the BJP slogan of 2004 and making a somewhat outdated reference. He was not. Actually, he visits India almost every year and lectures selectively at the Tata Management Traini…