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INDIA – overwhelming, unruly but full of promise! A warm and friendly tribute to India from the personal tour log of  Dr. David McLaughlin, Chairman, American Red Cross and  Orion Safety Products, who was here to attend the Partnership  Summit 2003 at Hyderabad, on CII’s invitation.

This was my fifth trip to India — the most fascinating country that I know, as it represents a mirror of the future of our global society. A country of over a billion people, comprised of eight autonomous states, 150 plus dialects and languages, over 40 religions, numerous political parties based on ethnic, economic and social commonality — it is the world’s largest democracy. It is a country that should not function, but it does — and does so reasonably well.

This trip was on the invitation of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the largest and most influential organisation representing industry in India — private and public, large and small companies. CII is respected by the Government of India, at the state and federal levels, and has a significant international reach as well. It is a force that will determine the future of the country.

India is halfway around the world from the U.S. … Mumbai was the first stop — the largest city in India with a population of over 20 million. Mumbai, like India, is full of paradox — elegant hotels within yards of homeless children living in abject poverty, magnificent buildings constructed during the British rule, which are now in ill repair; a busy, vibrant city (even at four o’clock in the morning on arrival), but one that has chronic high levels of unemployment and no apparent safety net for those in need … All countries have sharp contrasts; India’s are more evident at your doorstep than most.

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Murli Deora is a former mayor of Bombay, currently Vice Chair of the Indian Red Cross, and a member of the upper house of Indian Parliament — he also was a sponsor of the Gandhi Institute for Computer Education. We visited the site and it was an extraordinary experience — 300 underprivileged young men and women learning skills on the computer that may well make them the highest wage earner in their families. It is an extraordinary resource that is being sponsored by Microsoft, Dell, IBM and other major U.S. companies. The students take a three-month course that results in a certificate, which is hot currency in the job market. The men and women students are committed, enthusiastic and enormously attractive.

I also visited a Red Cross Blood Centre. The technology and equipment was marginal, but the knowledge and skills of the management and staff were excellent. There are 85 Red Cross Centres in India — all in financial stress. It is a system that lacks centralised control and has the potential to be a problem in the future.

Following the site visit, Deora hosted an interesting luncheon of perhaps 15 to 20 community leaders from the media, industry, the Government, etc. Based on their comments, they feel that they are proceeding on the necessary growth path, but have anxieties about the future — U.S. policy intentions, the outcome of the Korean situation and the Iraq situation, trade restrictions, Pakistan, etc. On balance, however, these leaders seemed fatalistic and are moving ahead with confidence. It is part of the character of the country — recognising the reality of their environment, finding what is possible and moving to achieve their goals in a non-confrontational manner.

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From Mumbai, the trip proceeded north to Delhi, population 14 million. Delhi is divided distinctively between Old Delhi — pre-British — and New Delhi — post-British. The differences are like day and night. Old Delhi is crowded, narrow streets, enormous energy, small shops and total confusion. New Delhi represents the design of a planned city — wide streets, gracious buildings, but still one sees every conceivable means of transportation on the streets — bicycles, camels, elephants, cars, trucks, drawn carts, etc. As someone observed, despite the chaotic traffic and the constant background of horns, drivers are essentially polite and give way to others — no road rage, only one observed accident, due to fog, and no horns blown in anger. It is the signature of a society of a billion people who know they must get along with each other to survive.

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The grandeur of India’s past is evident in the exquisite engineering and workmanship of the Taj Mahal, just as it is in the monumental achievement of the pyramids in Egypt — both on the list of the Seven Wonders of the World. Transporting blocks of marble over hundreds of miles and placing them into a perfectly symmetrical structure that has walls that are hand-carved and decorated with precious stones is astonishing!

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Hyderabad is the newest of the high-tech cities, which displays India’s intellectual brilliance in computer technology and technological advancement. Bangalore is the forerunner and the most prominent city in that regard. The executive director or governor of the state, Dr. Chandrababu Naidu, is apparently not a typical Indian politician. He is a charismatic leader who has shaped the strategy to make Hyderabad the centrepiece of the “new India”. The city is clean, vibrant, thriving and relatively modern. There are enormous old palaces surrounding the city — one of which was the location for an elaborate dinner hosted by CII for their conference. It is a dramatic blending of the past and the future, of India at its best. At one point in the visit, a group of young students — all in school uniform — jumped out of a small vehicle and ran up to shake hands, shouted “welcome to India” and after a photo session, jumped back into their three-wheeler and sped away. It was an emotional experience — hopefully the future of India.

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The CII conference was well done. The programme addressed issues of strategic defence, global trade, domestic and international economic policy, corporate governance, U.S. policy and a number of other issues of critical interest to the diverse corporate audience that are members of CII. The discussions with the attendees are always the highlight of the sessions, as one gets a better sense of their concerns, plans and level of confidence.

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Departure was through Chennai, population eight million plus. Airport security is multi-layered and is somewhat more process-driven than results-oriented, but clearly more intense than a year ago. It is always with regret that one leaves India — for you know that on your return it will be a different India, but still overwhelming, unruly and full of promise.


Courtesy: Communique, a Journal of the Confederation of Indian Industry, February 2003, Vol. 12, No. 2. Edited, printed and published by Tarun Das on behalf of CII.