Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Boardrooms and slums

A two hour domestic flight up to Delhi with Jet Airways. Time to recollect my impressions and try to make some sense of the last days. Much like I had expected, Mumbai immediately hit me with its dire poverty and newly found riches. Massive high rise buildings driven to the skies by speculation next to places like the Dhobi Ghat where the “washing caste” still washes linen by hand for hospitals and other institutions.

On the second day here we went to the offices of Tata Financial Services. Tata is one of the world’s largest industrial conglomerates, with businesses in virtually every field from tea to cars (including the already legendary Nano). At the office we visited, they were developing IT solutions for banks, airlines and other transaction intensive businesses like insurance companies. Outlining their globalization strategy, and describing how they have succeeded in moving upwards the value chain from simple labour intensive programming tasks to becoming fully fledged IT-partners, I could not help but smile. This is the world of the 21st century, a world in which an ever tighter web of interdependence is being woven, and a world in which war is increasingly becoming a historic anomaly. As companies continue to integrate their electronic infrastructure across borders, the enemy is no longer a distant Other but rather the ones that make sure that your check clears or that your flight is on time. Sitting in their fancy board room, eating Indian appetizers while listening to their plans to increase the number of women in their workforce, the happy “planetary future” that I often write about suddenly seemed to be within reach.

The following morning we were schedule to go for a “slum trip” to Dharavi. When I first saw this point in the programme back in Sweden I must admit that I felt repulsed. And when the people from “Really Tours” picked us up outside our hotel in white safari-style SUVs I feared that my worst suspicions were to be confirmed. However, once we got out to Dharavi, things were very different from what I had expected. First, it is worth pointing out that it is not the poorest in India, but rather the lower middle class, that live in slums. Second, there are slums that are a lot worse than Dharavi. But still, I was surprised to see all the activity, the happy faces of children who greeted us with curiosity, and the strong drive towards modernization. Looking ten, twenty years into the future, one could well imagine a very different Dharavi. On a less positive note, much of the work carried out in Dharavi is related to the recycling of plastics, aluminium and other metals, work that is done without proper equipment and protection with possibly disastrous long-term effects. Also, it was possible to see that the caste system is still very much alive in Dharavi, with the “casteless” Dalits doing the worst tasks like emptying the public toilets or cleaning the alleys.

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