Thursday, January 20, 2011

Rich Man, Poor Man, Middle Man

Rich Man, Poor Man, Middle Man

We traveled from Delhi to Agra today to see one of the true wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal.

It's a five hour trip by car from Delhi but it's a trip that says just about all you can say about doing business in India in the 21st century.

This is not the U.S., Europe or even China. Businesspeople looking to do business in India better realize that because it's a different world...but it's a world that will have the fastest growing economy on the planet in the next two decades, according to Morgan Stanley.

We traveled through abject poverty on the road to Agra, today a city of about 2 million. Along the way, we saw hovels as homes, cow dung as cooking fuel, barefoot beggars and cantankerous cars.

But we also saw signs in every village advertising cell phones and cell phone service. We saw satellite dishes on those hovels and drivers talking on their cell phones in those old cars.

We also saw children in neat uniforms walking to school through villages where their dads are barely scratching out a living but the smiles and enthusiasm on their young, eager faces were contagious.

They now have a future and their future may change the world.

One employment index pegs the number of jobs created last year in India at an increase of almost 30 percent over 2009's rate. Top gainers in absolute numbers were in engineering, education and pharma. Jobs in the most demand, by category, were engineering, IT, sales and
business development, finance and accounting, and marketing and advertising.

India will finally have a middle class and it's going to be huge. McKinsey estimates that India's urban population will swell from the 2001 census level of 290 million to almost 600 million by 2030. Many, if not most, of these new urbanites will be attracted by higher paying
jobs and new opportunities, lots brought to India by ex-pat firms from countries like ours.

Is India's future certain? No, there clearly are many challenges. The road to the Taj Mahal was atrocious. Basic services like garbage removal and street sweeping, which we take for granted, are almost unknown. But right beside those potholed, filthy roads are cell phone towers. Lots of cell phone towers. Everywhere.

When we arrived at the Taj Mahal, we were awestruck. Words really are inadequate. This is a building that required 20,000 workers more than 20 years to complete. In today's dollars, our guide proudly informed us the cost would be $1 billion. All for a ruler's third wife who died
unexpectantly giving birth to his fourteenth child.

Wealth beyond belief marked India's existence for hundreds of years, just as it characterized England, France, Spain and China. But that wealth belonged to the fortunate few.

That dog don't hunt no more, as they say in southern India. The future belongs to the People. And, in India, that means the emerging middle class.

For American business, that means you snooze and you lose.

That's another thing they are saying in southern India. And in eastern India where we go tomorrow. And in northern India in the very shadow of the Taj Mahal.

Ask that shopkeeper on the road to Agra with his brand new cell phone.

The future is his.

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