Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Nation's Capitol

'Home Sweet Home' is a special series on my visit back home to India after 3 years, hoping to document not just macroscopic changes in the world's populous democracy, but my own emotions on being back.

There were claps all around. As the acceleration kicked in our solar plexus, we were all glad to be off the ground. It had been a long 4.5 hours, sitting on the tarmac at Newark International, as rains had prevented us from taking off. Especially rough when you are at the start of a 14-hour flight to Delhi. Some time earlier, we were told that if we didn't make it by 53 minutes past midnight, we would have to call the whole venture off. As the deadline loomed, many of us were praying hard ... a cancellation would have been disastrous for me, with another local flight to catch in India. The takeoff was hence all the more exhilarating! Later, I managed to have a great chat with the head steward of the flight, talking about procedures and donut holes - no, not the food, but the fact that pilots are required by federal law to retire at 60, but can't claim pension benefits till 65! Turns out if we had returned to the gate under inclement weather, federal law would have required a new crew, which could have delayed departure even further. Hmm, a reminder that sometimes things aren't as simple as they seem ... I wish one of those serial complainers ("why can't they just return to the gate and reboard when they are ready to leave") could have heard!

I got into Delhi well past midnight, and was rather excited to catch up with an aunt of mine. She works for a large publishing company and represents an interesting generation of worker caught between a traditional and a new aggressive paradigm. The new model, inspired by the new breed of MBAs, seek short-term explosive growth, often at the expense of a core business of some heritage value, and a lot of social values. What is the purpose of a business, and what are its social commitments? This is an interesting question even in mature economies like the US, but especially in a nascent economy like India where you cannot depend on governments alone to address the problems that plague the country.

The next morning, I headed to Delhi's domestic airport, only to be shocked by the plethora of airlines operating. When I left India for the US, a private competitor had just come on to take on the federally run monolith, Indian Airlines. Now several private players controlled the market, and the effect was obvious. I waited for checking-in less than 10 min (something even operators in the US can't manage) and boarding was a breeze. I waited to board in a hall more reminiscent of a Greyhound bus stop than a plush airport (although a lot cleaner and with none of the seedy characters that dominate the landscape of the bus terminus in the US). The waiting room of the airport is an interesting place to watch people, and I think I got some perspective on Indian life, but none more interesting than that from a kid!

This kid was playing on the ground and periodically engaging strangers including yours truly. If this had been in the US, the mother would have freaked out and held on to the child tight, but here the mother actually seemed to be encouraging the child to interact more ("what's that uncle's name?" and other such nudges). As it turned out, the family sat next to me on my Jet Airways flight, and I pointed out my observation to them. The lady was surprised that any parent would not allow their child interaction with the public phase. We love it when he plays with strangers, she said, it means he's learning important social skills.

The family themselves represented an interesting demographic. He ran an Eicher dealership selling tractors, trucks and buses. Business had been very good recently, thanks to a booming economy, and they said there was no place better to see it than Faridabad, a sprawling industrial town outside of Delhi. I had noted the flood of new cars in Delhi, but they tell me it's peanuts compared to what's happening in the small towns, where industrial small businesses (as opposed to service workers) are truly reaping the benefits, and more importantly, spending money like never before. The change in spending patterns is new, and while at least partly represents a desire for present comforts over defered gratification, in some degree represents a confidence that the present boom isn't a cyclical uptick.

This has become a long post, what with the lack of time to write, and I have a speech to prepare, to give at a local school on environmental issues, so the blogging will have to wait till I'm a little more in control of that.

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