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The Teacup Revolution

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Bom Bahia, Bombay, Mumbai, at its confounding best

This is a light little article, written for the Khaleej Times, on India and its people.

In the early years of Asian globalisation, the cry amongst the investors and business punters was “You can’t do business in Asia without India in your plans”. (They were already putting up factories in China.) Being, as punters usually are, somewhat dim but enthusiastic, these blokes – cunning bankers, makers of third-rate motor cars, purveyors of skin whitening creams, assemblers of consumer trinkets – decided that India was The Next Big Thing and ran thither.

It has been about a decade since all that began. In these 10 years, India has become richer – at least that’s what its government tells Indians, the poor and rich alike – and India is a superpower, at least according to cricketers and Bollywood film producers. It’s also a superpower for manufacturers of disposable nappies, but I don’t want to be impolite.

Going to school in Gujarat

At some point, quite a few Indians who lived in the USA (and other, stranger, parts) decided that it might be a good idea to go home and see what all the fuss was about. Some of them packed up their Dodge minivans and Hoovers, gave the dog away, stopped at duty free on the way in, and looked around for Opportunity. Silicon Valley meanwhile returned to farming turnips and beetroots or whatever it is that happened there before the IT boys took over. Once at home, in the towns and cities of Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh and the online territory of Bangalore, they looked around. And saw dusty roads, grimy health clinics, piles of garbage, lazy policemen, burst water pipes, and lots of poor people. Not much had changed had it?

But it had. And so had their neighbours and their fathers-in-law and so had India’s chambers of commerce and its per capita income. Sure, there was heat and dust and stray dogs, but there was opportunity too. Looking around, they found that some of the world’s biggest and fastest growing IT companies were right where they had last seen a couple of coconut groves. Looking still closer, they found that state government officials had stopped sitting around drinking tea and pretending to push files and actually got some work done. This was remarkable. Rather as remarkable as imagining India could win a cricket world cup. But that too has happened.

The country where three wheels is often better than four

There were flies and mosquitoes, insane political riots and infuriating power cuts. But they found that their cousins and friends and the tea stall owner down the road weren’t used to putting up with it all any more. No, the Indians at home had organised themselves (noisily, chaotically and with great garglings of sweet tea) and Got Things Done. Others put up hospitals, set up education foundations and inspired migrants in slums to start little recycling businesses. Lots of people talked about micro-credit and mobile phone apps, even if they didn’t know what these were all about anyway.

It all started coming together, despite the serial cheats, the bejeweled scamsters, the mustachioed mobsters and the unauctioned cricketers. They built highways, agitated against nuclear power plants, threw old sandals at politicians and invented the Chinese-Jain pizza. Somehow, it held together. A few of the original punters stayed on, having become employees now in Indian-owned and managed companies. People read books written by Indian authors about utterly loony Indian plots a Rushdie would die for. Others turned them into films, or mobile apps, as if there’s a difference.

Sometimes, they thought about the Raj and the chicken tikka revolution. But not often. There was far too much to do.

– Rahul Goswami (is otherwise an agricultural and rural economics researcher – makanaka [at]

Written by makanaka

April 21, 2011 at 20:52