India – Final Reflections

As we sat in our final meeting with top advertising agency Mudra Communications on January 4, they asked us one simple question, “How do you portray an ageless civilization that was the birthplace of 4 major religions and 300 ways to cook the potato?”  Then they asked a more personal question – what would we take away with us from India when we returned to our daily lives in New York City.

Stephanie already summarized the top 5 truths (or Paanch) they said we should remember about India in her post below.   I’ll add a little bit more detail since I find them to be fascinating, simple and extremely relevant based on our 14-day adventure in Delhi, Agra and Mumbai.

1.Bacchat – Frugality: The key to this is that it’s defined by Brahminical restraint and has nothing to do with affordability.  Mudra’s employees said that haggling is the national pastime of India.  They explained how nothing is wasted, and how a Tabasco bottle would then be used as a water bottle and then a plant holder before being tossed into the garbage.

2. Ji – Hierarchy: There are 4 religiously debated topics in India: actual religion, Bollywood, Cricket and Politics.  The respect for hierarchy in Indian culture helps explain why the film industry holds so much power (though it’s only a 2B industry).  It also helps us understand the dynastic democratic politics in India.  The Nehru–Gandhi family has been dominant in India since independence in 1947, though that seems to undermine democracy.  Jawaharlal Nehru was the first prime minister of India starting in 1947.  He was followed by his daughter Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated and followed by her son Rajiv Gandhi, who also was assassinated. Now, Rajiv’s widow Sonia Gandhi – who happens to be a white, Italian-born, Christian – is the president of Congress. India may be an accepting country, but the power of the dynasty certainly plays a large role in how she has been able to maintain power.  The Caste System has been outlawed in India and holds little power in big cities like Mumbai and Delhi, but it unfortunately continues to be strong in the countryside where a majority of the population lives.  

Photo taken from

3. Juggad—Inventiveness A solution for every problem: Mudra employees explained that this concept started because of scarcity in the British colony.  Now, the concept means that Indians find a solution to any problem. This ranges from business solutions to everyday issues like a father fitting his 5-person family on a motorbike or a rural family using a washing machine to churn buttermilk. 

4. Masala – Co-existence:   Masala simply means a mixture of spices, and most of us know this term because we’ve eaten Indian food.   This is my favorite tenant about Indian culture because it allows for an open, thoughtful society.  Mudra employees described “a remixed India, where citizens preserve the old culture and embrace good new ideas as ‘modern’ and dispel bad ones as ‘western.’ ” That elicited a chuckled from the Westerners in the audience.  One great example is McDonalds.  India is the only country where there is no Big Mac.  Instead, there is a Maharaja Mac with Chicken.  India’s McDonalds also pioneered the idea of having a vegetarian and non-vegetarian side of the kitchen.

5. Thali – Non-linear structure: One basic distinction between the US and India is the fact that US culture was founded on the principles of Christian ‘progress’, whereas Indian culture is deeply intertwined with Hindu principles of circularity and re-birth.  India’s non-linear structure is clearly seen in cities that have grown organically and without a central planning grid, and the way that traffic is free flowing and yet still functional.  Mudra said Indians have an “affinity for negotiated disorder.”   They showed us an amazing ad put out by Nike about how an impromptu Cricket game could break out in the middle of a huge traffic jam.  

On a personal note, I will take away a new love and appreciation for Indian culture and a continued passion for travel.  This trip taught me that you really can’t understand another culture until you visit the country and speak with the people.  We bloggers try to explain our experiences through words, but there’s nothing like seeing with your own ideas, tasting and smelling with your own senses and truly embracing another culture with your whole heart.

Organized Chaos – A Walk through the Dharavi Slum in Mumbai

Source: and Getty Images
Source: Wikipedia

            The most surprising thing to me was the size and diversity of the industries in the slum.  About $650M of GDP is produced annually across the plastic recycling, aluminum, leather, textile and bakery industries.  But there is also a very dark side.  Thousands of men work in small rooms melting down aluminum cans and re-shaping them into containers or machine parts.  These men wear no protection from the noxious fumes or gloves to protect from the flames.  Our guide said it was because this protective gear would slow down the productivity, but that’s hard to believe if they were provided with high quality gear.   The truth is that people seem to focus on making money to support their families today and this week, and not think about the impact over the next 10 years.

The children have few educational opportunities outside of low-quality government schools and the handful of NGOs that serve less than 1% of potential students who want to learn English or computer skills.  And yet, these children were smiling and waving at us as we walked through their neighborhood.  Dharavi’s location near the railroad tracks and downtown Mumbai meant that children could venture into the city to get a taste of the opportunities and optimism in the city.   The problem is that this very economic development has begun to push these people out of their homes and communities into larger housing projects – or ghettos – in the outskirts of Mumbai, much like what happened in New York City.   Such relocation hasn’t happened yet to the residents of Dharavi because they have significant voting power with 1 million people living there.  But the government has displaced people in other slums and moved them to the outskirts of the city and dislocated them from their communities.  In New York, such separation has led to gang, violence and drug abuse.  I just hope that the people of Dharavi will continue to be organized enough to rally for their rights.

-By Regina Lee ’13

Women in Politics in India

Photo: Top News India

We recently met with Sheila Dikshit, the three-term Chief Minister of the state of New Delhi.   The prime minister was a bit distracted at the meeting, given that the state Congress voted ‘no confidence’ in the government the night before.  However, Mrs. Dikshit perked up when one of our classmates asked her what it was like to be a woman in politics in India.  She said that it was much like the US, and that women were decently well represented in government but that there was still much room for improvement.  The Delhi state government recently passed legislation dictating that 50% of all elected officials and administrative state employees must be women.  Mrs. Dikshit laughed as she said, “Men don’t give their space easily anywhere in the world”.  This type of legislation makes Americans uncomfortable because ‘affirmative action’ is a somewhat dirty word, but I think it’s a positive step as long as they ensure that the women who are elected are qualified.

This discussion got me thinking about the role of women in India.  Mrs. Dikshit also pointed out the irony that though some men are uncomfortable with women in positions of political power, many of the most powerful goddesses are women.  Thus, having women in positions of power is actually quite consistent with Hindu beliefs. (This includes the Goddess of Knowledge, Goddess of Power & Valor, Goddess of Wealth and Goddess of Culture)

I also learned that women have always had the right to vote since independence from the British in 1947. Indira Ghandi – the prime minister of India from 1966–77and 1980-84  — was the 2nd national political leader to be a woman after Sri Lanka.  The last four majors of Mumbai (over the last 20 years) have been women.   All of this makes me think that US politicians could learn a lot from the Indian system.

– Regina Lee ’13

Rickshaw ride in Old Delhi

Photo: Matt Daniel '13

We took a rickshaw ride through Old Delhi and got our first real taste of what life is like for the millions of people living here.  Our drivers took us down Chandni Chowk, or ‘moonlight place’, which is the wide avenue that is teaming with people downtown.

Back during the golden age of Shah Jahan, a canal ran through the center and reflected the moon, which is how it got its name.  Now, you can barely see the road because there are so many motorcycles, rickshaws, and pedestrians.  Our drivers then veered off the main road and took us through the back alley where there are hundreds of bead and sari shops.  The colors were incredible, as was the fact that the rickshaw fit down a street that couldn’t have been more than 7 feet wide and was filled with people.  Check out these pictures and videos to get a taste.

Photo: Matt Daniel ’13
Regina Lee’13

What reforms are needed to propel the Indian economy and individual businesses into the future?

Mr. Singh. Photo: Matt Daniel '13
Dr. Khullar. Photo: PIB of India

We met with Secretary of Commerce Dr. Rahul Khullar and Chairman of the Max Group Analjit Singh on December 28th .  Both leaders shared their visions of the reforms needed to keep India on a path to growth, though they came from very different past experiences.  Dr. Khullar spent 30+ years in government service while Mr. Singh built a multi-billion dollar healthcare and insurance company that has redefined “quality care” in India.

Reform 1 – Agriculture: India’s economic explosion since privatization began in the 1990s has propelled per capital income growth. Now that people have more money in their pockets, they expect to eat better, which is causing demand to greatly outpace supply.  The issue is that “India is woefully behind on the protein side,” said Dr. Khullar, and it’s not easy to just import eggs and meat.  Food inflation also has been driving overall economic inflation, so getting agriculture under control will produce positive effects across the economy.

Reform 2 – Infrastructure: Energy and water pricing are not market driven, mostly because single entities own the full value chain from generation to distribution.  The fact that energy – such as natural gas – is underpriced provides little incentives for companies to do exploration. This produces a vicious cycle.  Then there is huge congestion on highways, in airports and at seaports.  Our CBS group experienced this highway congestion first-hand.  We drove from Delhi to Agra today to see the glorious Taj Majal.  The 120-mile trip would have taken us 2-3 hours in the US, but it took us 4-5 hours.  We had to stop at the 2 state border crossings to pay a taxes as well.

Reform 3 – Corruption: Dr. Khullar said, “Corruption is a very serious problem. But there’s too much hoopla in the streets about it.  Solutions need to be more pragmatic.  You cannot legislate a problem out of existence.”  Mr. Singh added that it was a pain to work with the coalition government because there were so many different factions that made it difficult to create a single agenda.  The US has experienced this with just 2 political parties.  India has 6 recognized political parties. The government has begun to use technology more effectively through the creation of an E-portal for government transactions to offer greater transparency.  Dr. Khullar’s department is leading this effort on the Commerce side.

Business Lessons:  India is one of the most complicated places to do businesses because of the vast heterogeneity of the population.  To add to that, Mr. Singh explained that the world is getting so much more complex that he has had to change his company’s business principles to live up to these new standards. Below are a series of changes Mr. Singh has implemented. 

Past Business-as-Usual –> Current Business Needs

Market Protection –> Market Competitiveness

Commitment –> Passion

“Feels good” decision-making –> Value-based decision-making

Activity based –> Outcomes-based

Delegation –> Empowerment

Managing –> Leading

Incentives –> Ownership

Administrative reform –> Regulatory reform –> Full Transparency

Debt financing –> Small equity financing

Regina Lee’13

Why visit India on the Eve of 2012?

Thirty-nine Columbia Business School students will embark today on a two-week trip to India. My excitement for the trip boils down to three words: democracy, capitalism and culture.  I hope to dive into each of these areas and come back to NYC with a new perspective, new dance moves and new recipes.

Democracy: India is the largest democracy in the world.  About 344 million people voted in the 2009 parliamentary election for Manmohan Singh’s party.  That is absolutely enormous compared to the 307 million people living in the US today, of which only 131 million people voted in our 2008 election.  Politicians in the US often hold up our political system to be a ‘perfect union’ and a ‘beacon of freedom’ to the rest of the world.  But the truth is: we have a lot to learn from the successes and struggles of other countries, especially in light of the gridlock in Congress over the last six months.  The Indian parliamentary system has certainly seen its fair share of dysfunction due to the preponderance of parties, but I’m interested to hear from local government officials about how they are able to navigate bureaucracy to get things accomplished.

Capitalism: Indian GDP is expected to grow at 7.6% in 2012 compared to the 1.7% growth expected for OECD countries.   A recent Economist article predicted that India’s growth rate is expected to overtake China’s by 2013.  This article explained that “Indian capitalism is driven by millions of entrepreneurs all furiously doing their own thing… They are less dependent on state patronage than Chinese firms and often more innovative: they have pioneered the $2,000 car, the ultra-cheap heart operation and some novel ways to make management more responsive to customers.”   The CBS students on this trip will have the chance to meet with executives and entrepreneurs from some of the most successful telecom, media, financial services, industrial and social enterprise companies. We will have the opportunity to hear first-hand about what differentiates them, and what we can do better in the US.

Culture: I love naan, coconut-based curry and saag paneer.  But my tastes are decidedly American and undiscerning when it comes to Indian food.  I plan to learn as much as I can about Indian food and beer while I’m abroad, while avoiding ‘Delhi Belly’ at all costs.  I also can’t wait to see Bollywood in Mumbai or dance bhangra on New Year’s Eve.  Like many others, I absolutely loved the movie Slumdog Millionaire, but I realize that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Indian cinema and dance.  I just hope I don’t embarrass myself too much as I’m learning new dance moves.

Regina Lee ’13

Interview with Professor David Juran

1.       Why did you choose to accept the Chazen invitation to come to India?
It’s a no brainer, really. A great opportunity to travel to a new place with some excellent people.
2.       What are you most excited to see on our adventures to Delhi, Agra, and Mumbai?
I am looking forward to seeing as much as I can of the “real” India. I have no confidence that I will have another chance to visit India, seeing as how it took me 52 years to get there the first time.
3.       What is your favorite type of Indian food?
I like these little rolled-up things with spicy potatoes – no clue what they’re called, but you can get them in a hole-in-the-wall place in Greenwich Village that’s only open a few hours every day. I don’t really know anything about Indian food.
4.       As a statistics professor, what do you think the probability is that an average student will get sick (e.g., “Delhi belly”) on the trip?  What is the probability that a very responsible student will get sick?
They’ve scared us all so much that I think everyone will be prepared. I predict no major health incidents.
5.       What is your favorite trip taken to another country and why?
I went on one other Chazen trip, to Australia. On that one I brought my two sons (18 and 19 at the time). We had a blast.
6.       As a beer brewer, what is your favorite Asian beer and why?
I don’t know much about Indian beer, which is why I’ll be conducting field research during our trip.
7.       Do you know how to dance bhangra?  Are you interested in learning?
I’m not much of a dancer.
8.       What else would you like your fellow travelers to know about you before embarking on this adventure?
Why? What did you hear?

By Regina Lee ’13