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I originally wrote this as an assignment for my India Global Academic Travel Experience course at school after a 10+ day trip to the country in March, 2005. I got a good grade on the paper and I’m pretty proud of the writing so I’m posting it here for others to read. Enjoy.

The gleaming corporate campus of Infosys rivals the grounds of any country club in the United States, with swimming pools, a chipping green, and lush landscaping crossed by meandering walkways. After an introduction to the company and a walking tour of the campus, we were posed an interesting lunchtime choice: banana leaf or Domino’s? This question succinctly captures the underlying contrasts in a culture trying to find its place in the new global economy.

On the surface, the contrast of serving traditional foods on a banana leaf in the company cafeteria struck me as interesting. Here we were at arguably the most successful company in India on an ultra-modern campus, but we were eating with our hands from a leaf just as Indians had hundreds of years before. Young info-tech workers, many chatting in English, ate the meal just as their parents had, and their parents before them. Globalization to many evokes notions of Western imperialism and the death of local culture but in this setting the benefits of globalization seemed to coexist peacefully with a rich cultural heritage. Indeed, sprinkled amongst the crowd of blue jeans and t-shirts, women in Saris and men in more traditional Indian garb stood in stark contrast to the western idea of business casual. Looking beyond the surface, one finds contrasts more fundamental to the future direction of India as a part of the global economy.

Women occupy a unique position in Indian culture. In many respects, women are expected to be modest homemakers, a position not too different from women in the United States in the 1950s. One can see the women in the streets in India, modestly riding side-saddle on their husbands’ motorcycles or covered head-to-toe in Islamic burqas. But inside many Indian corporations, one finds Indian women in positions of authority rivaling those held by women in the west. Indeed, at each company we visited within India (with the exception of Standard Chartered Bank, whose lack of visible women is not surprising considering the number of women in the US banking industry) we met successful and confident Indian women doing jobs that would have been dominated by men just a few years before. India appears to be on the way to establishing itself as a world class meritocracy where individuals can rise to the highest levels of ability regardless of gender, and sets a great example for other developing countries around the world. For now it appears that the contrasts between traditional thinking about women’s roles and gender equity in India are able to peacefully coexist.

In stark contrast to the idea of peaceful coexistence, one notices the daily conflicts between the old and new in transportation and labor issues around India. Overloaded oxen and human powered carts attempt to share the roadways with taxis, busses, and large trucks on a daily basis in India, leading to crippling traffic jams and dangerous lives for all involved. Construction projects appear to drag on ad infinitum as men and women carry rocks and gravel in small pans perched on top of their heads, leading to further congestion of the roadways and no clear end in sight. Leaders within India claim that a lack of transportation infrastructure is to blame for the problems on the roadways but clearly the lack of capital, both physical and intellectual, limits the possibilities for swift change.

Despite the seemingly counterproductive nature of the contrasts observed in India today, the Indian economy is clearly headed in the right direction. Companies like Infosys and Wipro demonstrate that the use of technology to “catch-up” to more developed economies is indeed a viable option. Instead of toiling through the messy and often painful transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy like many of today’s G6 countries did during the early 20th century, India has capitalized on its strengths while taking advantage of the global demand for information technology. Cleary this is a time of transition in India between old economy and new; because this shift is happening without many of the intermediate steps that other economies have experienced, the contrasts stand out even more.

Gender equality in India, despite contrasting appearances, is years ahead of most developing countries. Indian women are truly leaders in the business and political worlds and bring diverse perspectives and ideas that clearly benefit any endeavor. India has certainly capitalized on this diversity and is in a position to set an example for both developing and developed countries alike.

Lastly, despite the opportunities presented by technology utilization and gender equality in India, the lack of capital seen in India is a major hurdle to overcome. The stark contrast between the old and new in terms of capital shows just how limiting this issue can be to national progress. With capital the immense human and intellectual potential in India could be unlocked, releasing a huge flood in productivity and economic growth. Indeed, many global investors have realized this and continue to pump investment into the country. It appears that the simple limiting factor in India today is capital, without which the contrasts between old and new will continue to conflict and slow the country’s growth.

In times of transition, contrasts can always be seen between old and new. The contrasts within the Indian economy and society are visible hallmarks of the sweeping changes affecting not just India but the rest of the world. As our group struggled to keep our pressed shirts clean while eating with our hands, we all got a much better feel of the unique changes taking place in India today.

Infosys campus in Bangalore

Banana leaf meal

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