I’m sitting at Chennai airport waiting for my flight and I figured this was as good a time as any to reflect on my first visit to the sub-continent. India is a brutal lesson in the inequities that exist in our world. I saw the bill for my one week hotel stay and compared it to some average salary statistics that I saw in the newspaper this morning – my one week stay cost roughly equivalent to what a taxi driver earns in nine months. Bear in mind that, while a great hotel, it wasn’t the top of the market, and that taxi driver is doing OK compared to a significant proportion of his one billion countrymen.

Of course one answer would have been to stay at a cheaper hotel and spread my Western affluence elsewhere? Another was found by my choosing regular buses over air conditioned ones (or taxis for that matter) or of walking through a monsoon downpour rather than take the easy route and jump in a cab – but who am I kidding – at the end of my (very) wet walk I had a nice hot shower and clean dry clothes, and the end of my trip in the sweltering bus I had a nice cool air conditioned room to enjoy. So yeah – as someone far less wise (bear with me – you’ll agree once you realise who I’m talking about – Dubya) than myself said; "If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem".

I went out from the hotel this evening before coming to the airport and watched the Diwali fireworks – while I did so an elderly woman shuffled past in the middle of the road carrying her shopping. It was one of those little things that make you catch your breath and wonder about the bigger questions in life. I couldn’t help but think of my Grandmothers in Eastern Europe a few decades ago – there but for the grace of God go I and all that. I was sorely tempted to pay a rickshaw driver to take her to wherever she needed to go – but I didn’t – there are different norms going on here and my (Western) perception is much more likely to be way off the mark than correct.

So what’s the answer? Well I’m no economist, and considering the economists themselves haven’t solved the issue we’re probably best not looking to them for answers. Maybe we should look to initiatives like those employed by Sridhar Vembu, owner of AdventNet the company for whom I came to India. Sridhar runs a university as part of his operation, teaching capable and motivated kids, without the financial resources to study themselves. Many of the developers he turns out end up working for AdventNet/Zoho and greatly bettering their lives in the process – from small acorns and all that.

Of course the ascension to middle class by these kids brings it’s own problems – Chennai, and I’d wager most of India, is densely populated, massively polluted and highly consumptive. More money for more people will only exacerbate this problem – you can’t breathe the air now – what will another few hundred million cars on the road do?

So I’ll head back to New Zealand and read in the paper those exhorting us to reduce, reuse and recycle – all lofty aims for sure – but it’s hard to see how anything that any of us in the West can do will really improve things in the world until the billions of people living in squalor and poverty rise out and enjoy some of the quality of life that we, in the Western world, take for granted. And until all of us, together, work out a way to live without turning this planet into a massive toxic dump.

So I’ll go back to New Zealand – to my well-fed, comfortable and resource heavy life. Meanwhile that little old lady will keep shuffling down the road, carrying her shopping, breathing the foul air and wondering where her next meal will come from.

Or maybe that’s just my Western take on it???

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

  • Ben, Thanks for capturing India. I fully agree with your description. Wish you had more time to explore other parts too (especially its cultural diversity across the nation).

  • @Krish – thanks for that – next time I visit I’ll try and broaden the scope of what I see although I’m sure that would give me some cultural diversity, I’d imagine the divide between rich and poor is similar throughout?

  • Ben, your look at it is quite correct in my westernized opinion.

    However, we are looking at a sub-continent, and what you will see in a small Himalayan village is really different from what you could see in a big city like Chennai.

    India means diversity. Religion, culture, language, color are all points that could make you read the same situation in different ways.

    I must say, I am often skeptical when I look at the rest of the world or current Indian leadership applauding the Indian success. The reason is that this success is measured with our own referential system.

    And I am not sure that system is part of the solution.
    Next time, just pass by Delhi and let’s have a taste of history in Shahjahanabad (the Old Delhi).

    A last reading advises for our westernized minds: http://www.amazon.com/Culture-Shock-India-Customs-Etiquette/dp/1558681450

  • Ben, Yes. The rich poor divide is the same. In fact, if you visit some northern part of India, it will be much more drastic. Tamilnadu is comparatively better off because of successful implementation of social justice programs. It is not the case in many other states. India is a good system for social scientists to study. I am learning more after getting out of India because I see everything without the unbiased lens.

  • Oops. Typo. It should read *with an unbiased lens* 🙂

  • Ben, to be honest, I think you got the first-time-westerner-shock. It is not as bad as it looks on the surface.

    Chennai, like most Indian cities, is extremely overcrowded and that is because investment in infrastructure hasn’t kept up with overall economic growth. So urbanization (which is actually a good thing economically), in Indian context, simply leads to extreme overcrowding. Poverty used to be invisible, diffuse and in the country-side. Now it is more and more in your face, in the cities, but the urban poor are actually in many ways better off than the rural poor.

    It is best to read Charles Dickens to understand how London was in that period when UK industrialized. Southern India, particularly Tamil Nadu, is in a similar stage.

  • Ben you will understand Chennai(or India) better when you have a chance and little more time to spend with the people(understanding how and what they feel) whom you have described as “that little old lady will keep shuffling down the road, carrying her shopping, breathing the foul air and wondering where her next meal will come from.”

  • @Varadh – I’m sure you’re right – and I look forward to being able to seize that opportunity sometime soon

  • Ya Indians are cheap labors in abroad, and the kids in the university are more worser than them.Good concept though.. they will be thinking that they are learning but the truth is they are working :)… they wont realize that though…they will be working with the spirit… clever idea with the twist!!

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