Sunday, July 06, 2008

Flattened World: America, China, and India…a Travelogue

I just returned from a brief vacation to India where I visited Bangalore, where I was born; New Delhi, India's capital; and Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. The long flights gave me a chance to catch up on my reading. I finished reading three books: The New Age of Innovation: Driving Cocreated Value Through Global Networks by C. K. Prahalad and M. S. Krishnan; Rivals: How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade by Bill Emmott; and The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria. Reading all three books with overlapping themes —globalization, the rise of Asian giants, and America’s need to live with the new economic powers— was a nice preface to my visit to India. Here are my thoughts.

The last time I visited in India was in 2001. I flew this time, as I did then, by Singapore Airlines (SQ) — unquestionably the best airline in the world. U. S. airlines should either emulate SQ or go bankrupt, and no one will shed a tear for their demise! Most of all, the flights from San Francisco to Singapore and then on to Bangalore (BLR) [1] were memorable, thanks to the exceptional and wonderful service by SQ.
[1] Now called Bengaluru by fanatics, thanks to the idiotic Indian bureaucrats and politicians who waste their time ‘Indian’izing English names, e. g., Bombay --> Mumbai, Madras --> Chennai, and Calcutta --> Kolkata, instead of spending money on improving the decrepit infrastructure in India; wait till the morons rename India’s capital as Dilli (Delhi) or Navi Dilli (New Delhi), just as they did New Bombay --> Navi Mumbai! As for me, I’ll stick with our English names: I still like to wear my Bleeding Madras, sip my Bombay Sapphire Gin in the veranda of my bungalow, and muse about the Black Hole of Calcutta and the Bangalore Torpedo!
BTW, SQ appears not to hire any female flight attendants if they are over 25 years old or weigh over 120 lbs! Singapore’s Changi Airport is a remarkable city in itself. Where else can you watch movies, play Nintendo Wii, Xbox360, or Sony PlayStation, or work out in a fitness center — all for free?

Arriving in the brand-new BLR airport, which is open 24 hours, was a pleasant surprise vis-à-vis the junkie airport of yesteryears, with an illy coffee shop, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Subway, and Baskin-Robins welcoming you at the airport! Is this junk-food heaven, globalization or a flattened world? Do you care?

Driving to my lodging in Bangalore, Cross Roads Inn, was an experience — 90 minutes to travel 40 kilometers or 24 miles. You think traffic in LA, New York, or Silicon Valley is bad? You ain’t seen nothin’ until you’ve been to India! On the way, you see ultra-modern, multi-story apartment complexes — even a scaled-down version of the Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur — and buildings housing offices of the likes of HP, IBM, Infosys, Microsoft, Motorola, Oracle, Tata Consulting Services, Wipro…right next to run-down buildings and abominable slums. I am convinced zoning laws don't exist in India.
IBM has over 70,000 employees in India and HP has over 28,000. And, in the tradition of many Indian employers, especially state-owned enterprises, most companies provide free transportation to and from work to their employees in the form of buses or vans. So you see scores of buses/vans hauling HP, IBM, or Oracle employees. At the airports in Bangalore or Delhi one can’t help noticing that about 50% of the passengers are professionals or businesswomen/men with laptops in HP-, IBM- or Dell-logoed carrying cases, using cell phones, and doing their work. I did not see this on my last trip.

Years ago, it would take you five to ten years to get a landline phone in India, unless you bribed a bureaucrat. Now that the telecom industry has been privatized (although there are still some state-run carriers), all you need today is a local address to get a mobile phone. I went with my cousin to a publicly held national carrier’s office and got a mobile phone in less than 20 minutes with a pre-paid plan! By the way, India today has almost 273 million mobile phones deployed and offers one of the cheapest rates in the world, at about 2 cents per minute! Internet access in cafes and coffee shops, e. g., Café Coffee Day, the Indian equivalent of Starbucks, is widespread and mostly free; you pay about 50 cents per hour of connectivity in cybercafes.
After a while, you get tired of Indian food and yearn for something American. So, I took my family for lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe in Bangalore. The place is nice, with a decent bar and friendly staff. However, the veggie burger I ordered was the worst one I have ever tasted. It was schizophrenic and couldn't decide whether it wanted to be a veggie burger or a simple peas-and-potato patty! I can buy better veggie burgers at Trader Joe's in San Jose, California! My wife, though, enjoyed her hamburger made with imported beef from the U. S.!

Talking to many of my second cousins/nephews/nieces and young professionals at local bars…er, English-style pubs, I noted that about 80% of them, unfortunately, have no intention of going to America for higher studies: They would rather pursue a career with BT, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Reuters, or any of the multinationals cited above in India than come to the Land of Opportunity, especially now that it has become so hard to enter the U. S., following 9/11. By the way, ALL of them have read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat.

So, is America losing out? Yes and no. Many Indians are going to Europe and Australia for higher studies, although the U. S. still remains the #1 destination. BTW, last year Australia attracted 37,000 Chinese and 28,000 Indian students, according to an Australian gentleman I flew with from Delhi to Bangalore.

As Zakaria notes in his book, America has to learn living with other rising powers and no longer act as a policeman to the world. The Chinese are dominating the African development scene, providing aid, building highways and oil refineries…without preaching human rights. Sure, China and India’s economies are showing robust growths, but will they displace America? Not quite, yet. The infrastructure in India is a disaster. For instance, Bangalore’s population has almost quadrupled to almost 7.2 million in 40 years; yet, none of the services — water supply, electric power, housing, and roads — have kept up to meet the growth. Hour-long commutes to cover barely five miles, the wasted gasoline (or petrol, as they call it there), and the accompanying pollution…we are sure are adding stress to peoples’ lives in Bangalore. Delhi is much better where all its transit buses and the three-wheeler auto-rickshaws run entirely on compressed natural gas (CNG). It is also trying to clean up its act to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

How about China? China is decades ahead of India in infrastructure — roads, highways, and electric power — but is choking with air pollution and drowning in polluted water, although it is temporarily closing many factories and drastically curtailing traffic in and around Beijing in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics. India has a shaky surface (roads, power grids, water supply, housing…) with a solid foundation (legal system, transparency, IP issues), whereas China has a solid surface (infrastructure), but a shaky foundation (questionable legal system, lack of transparency, lax IP issues, widespread piracy…).

Bottom Line
It was good to visit India after seven years, but it is GREAT to be back in America, my home!

Enjoy some pictures below:

Akshardham Temple, Delhi, world’s largest Hindu-temple complex

India Gate, New Delhi, built in memory of the 90,000+ Indian soldiers who lost their lives in World War I


Bill said...


Your comments about the state of the U.S. in the flattened world are, of course, quite correct. The huge danger we ignore is America's fiscal health, however.

In the last twenty years, we have built up and enormous debt, which is being floated by the countries with which we trade (recently, particularly, China). In the last five years, we have spent an absolutely absurd amount on a war in Iraq which, by most accounts, is not moving us toward a position of greater peace and prosperity.

The upshot is that the dollar is sinking like a rock on the international markets, as I'm sure you noticed in your travels. If it continues (and it will, as long as the U.S. continues to spend like a drunken sailor on shore leave) the U.S. will quickly lose its economic clout with the world. Countries will prefer to trade in Euros or Yuan, and the dollar will become a "pariah currency."

Unfortunately, the only solution for this is to tighten our own belts significantly. The largest items in the U.S. budget are all defense expenditures, and that is where we must start. Aside from the fiscal responsibility side, the most effective deterrent to our own government wandering afield in search of foreign adventures is to ensure they don't have the firepower to "project" to other parts of the world.

Yes, I am suggesting that we leave the "American interests" in the Middle East relatively "unguarded." I strongly believe that those who really own those interests will find far more clever and effective ways to guard them than by U.S. military force. Indeed, even if the flow of middle east oil slows down, I believe that "Yankee Ingenuity" is still alive and well in the U.S., and just waiting to be released to solve the problem of curtailed supply of oil. Government just needs to get out of the way, and give way to the Lithium-Ion battery, hydrogen fuel cell, and twenty other technologies that haven't even been invented yet.

The U.S. doesn't have to control the world; indeed, we can't. We need to find a way to exist peacefully and set an example for the rest of the world instead of trying to force others to bend to our will. We might even learn something...

M. R. Pamidi said...


I agree with your comments about America becoming a debtor nation. China and Japan together hold over $1 trillion of U. S. T-bills. If they dump them in favor of the Euro, we'll probably see a depression.

Also, our dependency on foreign oil and the continued building up of the military-industrial complex, as Ike warned us over 50 years ago, don't bode good for our country's future.

What we need is a Manhattan Project for Energy. Unfortunately, Washington, with self-interests and the oil-industry lobbying, is clueless.


M. R. Pamidi said...


China and Japan together hold over $2 trillion of U. S. T-bills.