Saturday, November 28, 2009

From Developing To Developed Without Being Nouveau Riche

Hans Rosling says that income per person in India and China will overtake that of the US and the UK by July 2048. Headlines in the print media never include error bars associated with data points even though Rosling himself hints at probable sources of error, for example, read the interview in the Economic Times. But, the common man on the street knows that Rosling must be right. Give or take a few rupees, onions at Rs 35/kg, jeera rice at Rs 50/kg, a sovereign of gold at Rs 14000, a cent of land in a Tier II/III city at Rs 1000000, a 25-year old with a half-baked degree earning enough to stay in a 1 bedroom flat and keep 4 servants (to wash the car, to clean, to cook, to walk the dog or the baby). In most Indian cities, if you talk about the great divide, the reply is “It trickles down” and you hope that it trickles fast fearing the birth of urban Naxalites. At least 100 years after independence, we should become developed, right?

We have nearly 40 years and there is plenty to do – for us and the government. The list is long and it is quite meaningless and too tiring to be complete here. As far as the government is concerned, they should first stop devaluing the education system. It is the most important infrastructure project and to stretch the metaphor, relying on quantity rather than quality is like building a bridge without concrete. Secondly, the government should listen to people like Enrique Penalosa (the former mayor of Bogota – read this article from the Hindu in which he says “Footpaths make all the difference”). Some time before we are developed, we will learn to walk, we will stop wanting to be a manager and we will take a degree to be educated on a subject we love.

Before we are developed, there are a few things we can do to be prepared. First, consider the case of Rahul (name changed). He was a VP in an investment bank in the US (graduate from IIT, postgraduate from an Ivy league school in the US). He faced a slump in his career out there and was given an opportunity to relocate to the Indian office and build a group or leave the firm. He made the obvious choice to be the successful “expat” in India. Within a year or so, he had nearly a dozen or more IIT graduates working for him and he was on the “fast-track”. He came and went in a posh sedan, with a driver who carried his bag from the entrance of the office to the car in true British Raj fashion. Back in the US, he must have used public transport along with his boss and probably his boss’ boss. Sure, there are snooty people out there but they are usually pea-brained or super-rich and mentally challenged. With more and more people becoming crorepatis (I am still a few zeros away from that and do correct me if that is a low denomination these days), it is important to avoid the problems of the nouveau riche (NV). In the old days, the NV were sent to prep schools to be educated on how to pretend to be born with blue blood. These days, the NV should learn from people like Obama (he might bow low to the Emperor of Japan but none, with sense, will doubt that it is due to low self-esteem). The lesson seems to be: try not to be nouveau riche.

Secondly, we should be ready for the pains associated with the developed world and the list includes higher rates of suicide, divorce; fierce competition in a meritocratic society; and, a view of being either a success story or a loser. Here, I would like to recommend a TED talk by Alain de Botton on a kinder gentler philosophy of success. He stresses that we should always allow for the haphazard in our lives – random events that could make or break us (hopefully, just for a while). For example, on Monday, if the Dubai debt crisis triggers the next wave of defaults and a black swan waddles into our life saying “I am back.”

1 comment:

  1. I remember, I read the article by Enrique, and I share his vision, as I cycle to office....may be we'll get better foot paths in Bangalore too.