Thursday, August 9, 2012

India, a land of stark contrast and juxtaposition

Now that we've all returned safely from India, I felt it was appropriate to reflect on this tremendous experience. Sure, we were supposed to blog during the trip, but the chaos & packed schedule made it quite difficult.

The first thing I noticed as we stepped out of the airport in Chennai at 4:30 AM was the number of people waiting around in the early morning. Literally hundreds of people standing there to welcome their friends and family, even when they should have been asleep. This was just the beginning, as the rest of trip we could see people everywhere moving in seemingly every direction. Traffic was never at a standstill. It was more like a stream flowing around stationary objects, whether they be broken down cars, 'optional' traffic lights, or cows sleeping in the road. It seemed everyone had a place to go, something to do, but had to battle through the chaos to reach their destination.

Being at street level, you could really see the dramatic differences between 'modern india' and 'not-so-modern' india. On our site visits, we were almost always at a very nice location: big beautiful corporate buildings similar to anything in the US. At my group's site visit, Larsen and Toubro (L&T) had a spectacular campus with green manicured lawns and impressive architecture. Right outside the property though, you would see a lack of sidewalks, piles of rubble, people sleeping on the ground, and stray dogs. It never made me feel unsafe though, it was just the reality of being in Chennai. Being in a very different society certainly made you think about the concepts of collectivism versus individualism a bit more. The interesting juxtaposition was apparent throughout the entire trip.

At L&T, it was quickly clear that they were similar to a General Electric for India. They had a lot of work related to engineering, infrastructure, defense, financial services, and many others. They seemed to really love the term "imagineering," which us Americans found amusing because we associated it with Disney. During our Q&A session, I asked about corruption in India, which seemed of particular relevance to a business in the infrastructure sector (which was clearly lacking). The speaker acknowledged the problem, but said L&T differentiated itself by being the company to go to when a politician actually wants a project to get done. They charge a premium for their services, but the speaker said they avoided corruption issues by doing so. The infrastructure appeared far worse in Chennai, where there didn't seem to be a real highway anywhere. Ironically, we were in Chennai when half of India lost power (~1/10 of the population of the earth) and we didn't lose power. A few days later we were up in Delhi, which had much more developed roadways, but evidently an overtaxed electrical grid.

I'm sure plenty of people will want to describe the trip to the Taj Mahal in greater detail, so I will defer to them. Needless to say, it was absolutely spectacular and a really amazing experience. Also, I invite my colleagues to write about our harrowing bus journey down the highway, or insanely fun rickshaw rides. I would also like to thank everyone who helped out on the journey, including the NMS people, site visit companies, Don/Ray/Sanjay, and our Indian classmates. I really treasure the experiences we had in this truly diverse, crazy, busy, chaotic, and fun country.

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