Wrapping My Head Around India

Over spring break, which concluded less than a week ago, I spent two weeks in India helping a small company build out an agricultural extension services model. It was a rewarding experience, not only for the intrinsic benefits that came from helping out a fledgling organization, but also because it gave me first-hand experience in a burgeoning economy, one whose inner workings are likely to influence the form that the world takes in the next half century.

So, when I found out recently that Duke India Business Forum was to be held this weekend, I couldn’t help but think that it would synthesize some of the work we did. These events are often interesting and characteristically salient, but I felt that given India’s rapid growth rate and population of well over a billion, this would also be exceedingly relevant, and I was not disappointed. With two esteemed keynotes and a series of panels covering virtually all the industries that interest me, there was a lot of information to soak in, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that sentiment.

I was truly engaged and inspired by the optimism extolled by the initial keynote (Dr. Woodrow Clark, 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Winner) as well as the series of panelists. They depicted a meteorically ascending economy, one in which a middle class emerged out of thin air in the last two decades, and one which has positioned itself as a preeminent force in several industries of fundamental importance in coming decades. They illustrated something akin to the post-war economic boom in the United States, fueled by enthusiasm, education, and ambition. As they so eloquently articulated, tomorrow’s Indian won’t be typecast as merely an IT enthusiast or a software sage, he will be instrumental in developing novel and groundbreaking innovations for a rapidly changing economy.

Impressed though I may have been, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted: this overflowing confidence contrasts sharply with the bleak conditions we saw very intimately during our time in India. Certain cross sections of Indian society may be slated to prosper in the new economy, but it seems there are several hundred million Indians who may not even realize a new economy is afoot. The impoverished rural farmers we met as part of our work may have pursued their work with an uncommon passion and energy despite their adverse circumstances, but much of the infrastructure with which they attempted to forge lives was quite primitive, and there was a near total absence of the information technology on which future growth in the economy is predicated.

However, amid this sharpest of contradictions, I found some validation in the work we were doing, something to justify the months of hard work and the frustration of 1 am conference calls. Agriculture may be the occupation of 60% of the Indian workforce, and the downtrodden masses may be relegated to archaic farming tactics, but the optimism that we saw displayed by the panels reflected the belief that this disparity is not going to persist. Implicit in the words of speakers was the notion that someone, maybe the Indian government, maybe large multinationals, or just maybe, humble Fuqua students, was going to be responsible for, and incentivized to reach out to these farmers, among many other poor Indians. It occurred to me then that we were not just providing pro bono consulting work for a small firm, but we were providing a life line for the farmers who needed it most, we were harnessing the leading thought in the industry to bring underserved farmers into the economic fold. These people, who were unconditionally grateful for our participation, can’t be left at the station if India’s economy is to truly emerge and maximize its contributions to the world; indeed, they’ll be the ones throwing more coal into the engine, and speeding up the progress of their most remarkable nation.