Immersion in India

photo by Billy Ekofo

This January, a group of 15 graduate students from Mason School of Business visited India and had the opportunity to view the country from political, cultural, and economic frames.  The following are some of their reflections — Julie Hummel

“Namaste” and life in Rural India – Alyssa Smith, Full-time MBA Student
“Namaste” was one of the first words I learned upon my arrival in India.  It is the common salutation in which the individuals press their palms together with the fingers pointed upwards and bow their heads, often adding the word along with the gesture.  It is a non-contact greeting used universally, even when meeting someone of a different gender, age or social stat us.  I discovered that while hand-shaking is common practice in the US, the non-contact greeting is much more acceptable in India.  The gesture itself is representative of a respectful knowledge-sharing among the individuals.  It seems an appropriate way to start our reflection on our India immersion experience.

Water Reclamation Project in Rural India – Alyssa Smith, Full-time MBA Student
My favorite day of the whole trip was when we went off the beaten path into rural Rajasthan to visit an NGO called Tarun Bharat Sangh. We passed field after field of mustard greens, women in brightly colored saris tending the fields, and even the occasional wild peacock.  We saw the new construction of power lines, waiting for the power to be brought to the area for the first time. We drove through a few tight villages throughout the journey, seeing more of the small convenience stores and men getting a fresh shave.  We passed several places on the side of the road with large slabs of white marble just recovered from the mountains rising in the distance.  Looking at all the lush yellow and green fields, I would never have expected that we were in a desert in the middle of the dry season.   Much of this can be attributed to India’s “Water Man,” founder of Tarun Bharat Sangh.  Rajendra Singh, or the “Water Man”, was determined to commit his life to serving the needs of India. As more people from the farms went to work in the mines or in the cities, there were less people who knew how to effectively reserve water for their farms to be used during drought.  Tarun Bharat Sangh was born as a way to restore the sustainable farming practices through education that had been lost over generations.  Not only does the school teach different communities around the world how to preserve their water for use throughout the year, but they also promote the planting of native vegetation that were made to survive such conditions.  Since its inception, it has helped many farms turn profitable once again and in turn, give the communities more power to stand up to industry looking to exploit the natural resources.

Two Contrasts – the beauty of the Taj Mahal and the hope of Dharavi — Billy Ekofo, Full-time MBA Student
The Taj Mahal was impressive.  The fog made the place look more intriguing and mysterious at the same time.  Just to think that this monumental and extravagant palace was built out of love, but became a mausoleum added to its mysteriousness.  It is a tourist heaven, but behind the glamor of tourism is a strong population of devoted pilgrims coming to the Taj for Spiritual reasons rather than just the scenery.  This group of people tends to go unnoticed, mainly because these people don’t scream for attention.  They are there on a spiritual journey.   I felt like I was intruding on their worship space, but at the same time, felt part of something bigger.  We walked on sacred ground that day, and it felt good.

What a dramatic experience it was to visit one of the most beautiful buildings in the world and then several days later visit the slum that was made famous in the movie, Slum Dog Millionaire, called Dharavi.

Dharavi – A Slum as a place of hope? — Billy Ekofo, Full-time MBA Student
I have heard people say that seeing is believing.  Sometime, sight can be deceiving.  I took this picture of the slums of Dharavi because I wanted people to see what the slums look like.  What I couldn’t capture in the picture is the thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem that is alive and well in Dharavi.  Underneath the dirt, the less-than-perfect sanitary conditions, and the overcrowded living quarters is a community of hard working people relying on their training to provide for themselves and ultimately for their community. The businesses we’ve visited placed a great importance on the need to recycle.  As a result, the ecosystem created by businesses in Dharavi helps sustain this massive community of immigrants coming from all over India.  People don’t just come to Dharavi and leave.  They come and make a life for themselves through the less-than-perfect living conditions in the slums.  The significance of Dharavi is not through its physical shape, but through the entrepreneurial spirit people living in Dharavi exudes every single day.  If you just focus on the amount of people living there, the dirt, and the congestion, you will miss the fact that businesses in the slums provide a significant contribution to Mumbai’s local economy.  Items that are recycled and made in Dharavi are on par with some of the biggest brands selling in malls around the city and the country.  People even told us that merchandises made in Dharavi are sold around the world.  Money and wealth is present in this urban jungle.  The narrow street and unsanitary conditions do a fantastic job in dissuading outsiders from paying close attention to the thriving business community in Dharavi.  After all, it is a slum.  It is dirty.  It smells.  Why should I care?

I should care because of our 15 year old guide in Mumbai who lives in Dharavi. I will call him Joey.  Joey goes to a public school in Dharavi.  The way he makes his money is by giving people like me a tour of where he lives.  Unlike me who was repulsed by some of the living and sanitary conditions, he is proud of his home and his community.  There was no shame on his face.  He embraces his home in the slum with arms wide opened.  Joey has big dreams.  One day, he wants to be a programmer.  For now, mobile technology is his favorite hobby.  Aside for occasional indulgences such as the purchase of a new Samsung Galaxy S3 cellular phone, he saves all of his earnings to pay for his college education.  The fame that Dharavi received through the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” was a welcomed blessing to him.  More and more foreigners are curious about the living conditions in the Mumbai slums.  The more of them come, the more tours he gives, and the more money he can save.  He can give about 3 to 4 two hours tours each day depending on the numbers of tourist groups eager to see the slums.  That’s his life.  Showing the beauty of his home to people whose misconception and prejudice have painted a sight of the slums that is solely focused on pure, unfiltered disdain for the place he calls home…people like me.

A new perspective on Six Sigma ISO certified operations! — Ryann George, Flex MBA student
My immersion tour of India provided me with an amazing opportunity to gain a perspective that would be unavailable through basic tourism.  As business students, we were afforded the opportunity to visit NGOs and companies that are working both to modernize and industrialize the country, and also to support and enrich the ways of life of the Indian people.  What was most visible and memorable to me throughout our enhanced tour was the dichotomous nature of the country.   There were powerful, palpable differences between rich and poor, modern and traditional, men and women.  The people of India, especially the middle class, realize that these opposing characteristics do not have to be mutually exclusive when it comes to growth and industrialization.   One of the most amazing things I witnessed in Mumbai was the work of the Dabbawallahs.  Traditionally, Indian men like to have a hot lunch from home during the work day rather than packing a cold sandwich, or relying on eating out.  The Dabbawallahs, residents of a village outside of Mumbai, keep this tradition alive through a six sigma, ISO certified system of home lunch pick-up, delivery and return up to 200,000 lunches every day of the work week.  One man comes to your home, picks up the lunch (along with many others) and delivers them to a sorting area near the train station.  There the lunches are sorted according to delivery area and another Dabawallah takes it off to the husband’s workplace.  Finally the empty lunch boxes are picked up, resorted and delivered back home.  To keep so many lunches with such diverse dietary requirements without the aid of computers is incredible.  And it not only provides those villagers with a source of income, it allows Mumbai, with increasingly corporate working environments, to modernize without having to sacrifice this tradition.

Recycling for Dignity – Goonj, DehliKevin Barrett, JD/MPP Candidate
While in Delhi, we visited an NGO called Goonj and I saw, first hand, how an NGO can drastically and powerfully meet the needs of its community.  Goonj is an NGO that focuses on the recycling of clothes.  At the sorting center, we gained a great understanding of the rigorous sorting and cleaning of the donations, and the innovative craftsmanship and use of the materials. Through this organization, not only are thousands and thousands of Indians receiving the proper clothes they need, especially in the winter season, but also the organization has expanded to recycling just about any materials that are donated. Everything from used pencils, games and equipment is recycled or repurposed. I even supported the organization by purchasing a purse for a friend made from magnetic cassette tapes!  Goonj also promotes encouraging those in need to become self-sufficient.  This concept not only provides communities and citizens with clothing and materials that they need, but it also ensures and inspires self-sufficiency so that the community can grow and strengthen.

Homelessness and Poverty – Seeing beyond the statisticsSuzanne Grassel, Full-time MBA
One statistic I read reported that there were 78 million homeless people in India in 2003.  That number is probably a conservative estimate, as people do not have any type of documentation in India and it is therefore difficult to get an exact count.  During our stay, the area was experiencing its coldest winter in 40 to 50 years.  Starting a fire was the only way for homeless people to keep warm.  And the only thing available to burn was garbage.  This included everything imaginable – even plastic bags.  During this trip, in all the cities we visited, it was the number of homeless people which hit me the hardest.  Being from New York and working in Manhattan, I am accustomed to seeing a fair number of people living on the streets or lining up to receive meals from soup kitchens.  In India, however, the presence of the homeless population was much more visible.  It was disturbing to see the number of families living on the sides of roads or under bridges begging passersby for money.  In Agra, we gave a child one of our boxed breakfasts.  The look on his face after receiving the food was both inspiring and devastating at the same time.  Through this sadness and poverty, I believe there is great potential for India to capitalize on this segment of the population.  One thing I noticed while I was in India was people’s attitudes.  In America, the feeling of entitlement is prevalent, especially in my generation.  Many people believe they deserve anything they want without having to work for it.  I did not feel as though people felt that way in India.  In fact, every place I went, I felt an entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to work hard to reap the rewards.

Transportation and the Automotive IndustrySara Pullen, Flex MBA Student
The most interesting visit for me was the tour of the automotive factory.  Working full time in a manufacturing environment, I found it fascinating to see how the automotive industry in India manufactures products.  Our tour guides showed us how it takes twelve minutes to manufacture a vehicle from start to finish.  Additionally, the factory we toured uses several LEAN and six sigma practices that I am currently working to incorporate at Newport News Shipbuilding.  As you can see in this photo, the automotive industry is ripe for major growth with over 50% of households in India not in possession of a car.

Role of BanksMargo Wheeler, MBA Full-time Student
We visited two banks in India. I learned that India views capital regulation more conservatively than the US. Regulations which only allow for a certain percentage of capital from foreign investors allow India more control over what and where the money comes from.  Even though this philosophy may cause slower growth, they believe it is more sustainable growth in the long run.  We were told that 20-30% of bank loans have to be given to a “priority sector,” such as agriculture and small businesses.  Again, although we typically think of regulations as negative, they see this as a way to support the needed growth in their country.  I also found it interesting that their banks take on much less risk than the US, loaning out only 8-10 times savings, versus 20 times in the US.

Using Technology to change the role of GovernmentLiz Burroughs,  Full-time MBA Student
On our first day in India, there was a small riot next to the place where we had lunch.   We learned that this riot was related to the massive identification program currently underway in India.  The Indian government is moving its entitlement payment system online.  By the end of next year, India will transfer $58 billion to 90 million households through high-tech systems that identify people using fingerprint scans.  Prior to this plan, any person who received entitlements (including pensions, scholarships and salaries for public work projects) had to get their money through post offices which could take days or involve paying a bribe to get their money.   This new system will save the government billions of dollars overtime but it is a giant undertaking as 60% of India’s population is undocumented.  Needless to say, it really made me appreciate America’s social security program. I do believe the government is on the right track when it comes to improving India.  Its plan to give everyone the equivalent of a social security number in the hope of improving the welfare system is a huge and very promising step in the right direction.

Final Take Away – Montique WarrenMBA Full-time Student
Prior to the trip my perception of the country had evolved from a mixture of TV programming, readings, and interactions with individuals of India.  I expected to see mostly scantly homes and villages, yet smart and technologically savvy people.  What I couldn’t put together in my mind was how the two extremes came together.  Overall, the immersion experience was very enriching.  I learned about the country, culture and myself.  The historical experience was like none other than I have encountered.  I gathered that, like in the US, there are individuals who break the system by begging and cheating, but they are the minority.  The greatest take-away is my personal growth and understanding of culture tolerance and exposure.  From the trip I gained a new appreciation for being American as well as new meaning of being thankful.

The group in front of the Agra Fort

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Julie Hummel

Julie Hummel is an MBA Program Coordinator with the Mason School of Business at the College of William and Mary.

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