New Delhi…a third visit

I’m going to stop counting visits to India since I’m now certain I’ll be back again, maybe several times, for business, culture, development work,  and of course just to experience more of this hugely fascinating country.  I haven’t yet seen the Taj Mahal, or taken a tiger safari, or been to the beaches of Kerala…  But I did get around enough this time to visit  Lodi Gardens on the Republic Day holiday (more on that special day, below) and spent time in both Hindu temples and the great Sikh shrine, Bangla Sahib.


My visit this January was primarily to participate in a Board meeting of The Asia Foundation in New Delhi.  I learned, first hand, about the gigantic challenges facing TAF’s small India staff as they try to foster several key goals:
  • South Asian regional cooperation, particularly regarding shared water resources and movement toward much more robust free inter-regional trade (cross border trade accounts for only 5% of India’s GDP!);
  • Fighting the deeply rooted culture of corruption, promoting a more open and accountable government at all levels; and
  • Enhancing women’s security and civil participation.

Their small resources requires effective partnership with other organizations, offering proven organizational capability and a credible promise of durable commitment.

India’s internal politics are very much in the current news as the center-left Congress party looks poised to lose upcoming national elections.  But, regardless of that outcome, a more interesting perspective that I learned was that India’s current parliamentary system is built on old census data, reflecting a 80/20 rural/urban population.  Current data suggest that urban populations are now approximately 37% and growing to 45% soon.  Combined with an average 7% GDP growth over the past 15 years, while the population has grown at only a 1.5% rate, this yielded a much larger, on average very much richer, and more demanding urban population, but with far from adequate urban infrastructure to cope with that growth and insufficient incentives to encourage private investment response.  The good news is that that growing and relatively wealthy urban population will no longer tolerate local municipal governments’ lack of accountability and will force reallocation of revenue from the national and state governments to the 3rd, municipal tier.

Women’s Empowerment

Among the most disheartening facts of the Indian cultural landscape is the frequency of violence against women and girls.  This has too many ramifications and symptoms to pursue in this little post, but I’ll share some things that have especially struck me.  First, this is a dynamic moment for change, due to the disgust that the vast majority of Indians feel in response to these problems and their shame from the worldwide publicity around recent incidences of gang rape.  We learned of a program called “Ring the (door) Bell!”  “Bell Bajao!”,  encouraging neighbors to exert strong peer pressure against abusive treatment.

Some of the problem stems from the demographic disproportions caused by female fetal abortion and female infanticide, to avoid dowry obligations at the outset; but also from early (very early) child marriages (though illegal, there are some 300,000/yr.) so that dowry requirements are still small.

Another area of hope is how rapidly even long entrenched cultural artifacts can change given how young the population is (70% under 35) and the ubiquity of social media information flow as well as well organized, direct outreach to men and, especially, boys.

South Asian Geopolitics

India’s regional foreign policy is burdened (somewhat like the US, globally) by its relative size and power.  It also faces real or perceived threats from two large neighbors, Pakistan and China.  It is looking for common ground with other Asian countries and Australia and New Zealand in counterweight to China’s exertion of power and influence.  In this it sees an opportunistic relationship of cordiality with the US.

A novel suggestion proposed was the development of a United States of South Asia, some sort of grand, federal union, with important economic and foreign relations authority lodged in a central government…whose capital would need to be somewhere other than in India.  Colombo, perhaps!?!

This development of rapport with other Asian countries was prominently on display at the great Republic Day celebration, where Japanese Prime Minister, Abe, was the Honored Guest for ceremonial  wreath laying and parade review.

Republic Day.

Republic Day is the annual celebration of the adoption of the Indian Constitution on January 26, 1950.  On one of only three “dry” days in the year (one of the others is Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday), millions of people turn out along Rajpath to watch the great military parade of dazzling troops, marching bands, tanks and rocket launchers, aerial fly-bys, and surprisingly quaint floats representing various regions/peoples/and customs of India.  Our TAF group was supposed to have reserved seated viewing, but as we approached our section, we were shrugged-off by guards and officials who explained that some others had simply commandeered them before we arrived.  Whether we were naively unaware of bribery opportunities or just the victims of more highly placed usurpers, we’ll never know, but we did get standing room, about 20 ranks deep, and the tallest of us actually saw much of the parade.  Sadly, I have no pictures, since we were warned not to bring smart phones or cameras (very perfunctory pat-downs did occur); but once in the enclosure, many locals produced their recording devices and flashed away unabashedly.

CFP Certification in India

I also had an opportunity to speak to a group of about 80 CFP practitioners and students in CFP education programs.  As everywhere in Asia, there is great eagerness in India to acquire sophisticated planning skills to match the enormous and growing need for financial guidance.   As literally hundreds of millions of people accumulate disposable financial resources and face more complex choices, there is huge thirst for clues to building successful and durable businesses to respond to the market opportunity.  I hope my comments that day, like my conversations with a number of firms during my last visit to Mumbai and Delhi and Bangalore in 2012 were intended to do, helped to satisfy a small part of the entrepreneurialism coursing through the fledgling planning profession in India.

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