Friday, March 07, 2008

Mumbai: Juxtaposition of the Flat and Unflat World

My trip to Mumbai last week brought me back to the realities of a large city in a developing world. Mumbai is on the west coast of India. It is the old Bombay, the 'gateway' of India for generations of English and other traders and plunderers. Having just left Bangladesh last June after 4 years, coming to Mumbai and being confronted with poverty and population made me feel homesick for the streets of Dhaka once again.

Mumbai has about 17 million people. But there is no way to tell the exact number. Many people (40% we were advised) are living in slums. Housing is expensive and non-existent for dwellers in the 'unflat world'. People are drifting in from the villages to find work and food.....but competition to survive is fierce. The city is in crisis with major building and reconstruction work going on to fix flooding and drainage problems and to provide better infrastructure to support the millions of dwellers. There is a rising middle class and a rich upper class...another reason why housing and rental prices have gone through the roof recently. We were quoted something like $2000 per square foot per month to rent an apartment.

My colleagues and I stayed in an average local hotel. Chosen for the price and location to the ASB Unplugged conference at the American School of Bombay. It was clean, and had hot water most days. Wireless network did not work most of the time, but at least it was there! Outside the hotel door was a street of activity with cars, bikes, motorbikes, street vendors, open-air stalls and shops.
ASB Unplugged
Executive Enclave Hotel street view

On a tour through Mumbai after the conference we experienced the usual street vendor/beggar selling and soliciting. We went to the (being renovated) Gateway of India structure right in front of the magnificent Taj Mahal hotel and experienced grandeur. We went to a Jain Temple, Ghandi's house, the Hanging Gardens, the Dhobi Ghat open air laundry and then the calm 'Bombay Blue' restaurant for lunch.

ASB Unplugged
Dhobi Ghat Laundry

What is holding this city back from becoming a flattened world? As Friedman discusses in 'The World is Flat' there are two main forces causing an 'unflat' condition in countries such as India and China. These are illness (such as AIDS) and poverty-related sickness, and also dis-empowerment. The average person in Mumbai is dis-enfranchised from the decision making world. Life is a struggle. Literacy rates are still low, despite the push for education and the need to learn English (the global language), for many of the people living and surviving in Mumbai their lives have not changed dramatically, if at all, for generations. The world may be flattening around them, there may be officially no caste system, there may be officially a requirement that all children attend school, however the reality is still a long way off. In the cesspool of life that is Mumbai change comes slowly, but it is coming. Our tour guide shared with us the many changes over the past 5 years, we could see this significance but in a city of un-repaired buildings and poverty juxtaposed with flash shopping malls and hotels, but we could also see the need for further changes and empowerment through education and strong leadership.

ASB Unplugged
Concierge at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Gateway of India

Meanwhile, at the amazing ASB Unplugged conference where we indulged in conversations about educational reform, 21st century learning and 1:1 programs it seemed that most presentation mentioned the 'flat world' and referred to Friedman's book as a beacon, a landmark for understanding the past and providing direction for the future. It was my chance to be smug also as I mention to colleagues, yes, I have heard of Friedman's book.....well, actually I am in it! (page 501-503), in the chapter about if you are not doing it, it is not happening. So, here I am doing it once again, but this time in Mumbai, in this country that has an amazing history of intellect, of survival, of business acumen and of grasping opportunities.

ASB Unplugged
'The World is Flat', for sale at the Mumbai ASB Unplugged conference

See more images from our trip to Mumbai on my Flickr

Technorati Tags:


Anonymous said...

The world is flat. Flattening also brings about other moral considerations. For example if multi-national corporations now have free reign to seek the highest priced markets for good delivery and to find the cheapest production costs to whom do they owe their allegiance? stock holders? nations of origin? employees? Where do they pay taxes? How do they help put people over profits? Or do they?

Pope Benedict's coming encyclical is on the topic of globalization. It should be interesting to see the religious leader of 1/5 of the world's population weigh in on the discussion. The Catholic Church if anything is multi-national.

Anonymous said...

I heard Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel winner in Economics and also was the Chief Economist at the World Bank)while in India, speaking on many TV channels and to the news media as well, how the so-called globalization benefits have by-passed 3/4 of the Indian population, which is close to 600 million poeple!! So, though Friedman loves to paint a rosy picture of globalization in India and China, the majority of their population have been left out of the "progress" and "develpoment," fold of gobalization. But ofcourse, Joseph Stiglitz doesnt find a mention in Friedman's Flat World book!

Two books to read, which offer a counterperspective to Friedman's "The World is Flat."

The Harvard Professor, Pankaj Ghemawat's latest book, "Redefining Global Strategy," is more academically inclined. I read an article of his published in the journal, "Foreign Policy", where he argues that the world is, at best, only semi-globalized. His argument being that Cultural, Administrative, Geographic and Economic aspects of a nation come in the way of total globalization from taking place and cites examples of the same.

The other small, but interesting book, is by Aronica and Ramdoo, "The World is Flat? A Critical Analysis of Thomas Friedman's New York Times Bestseller." It is a small book compared to the 600 page tome by Friedman, and aimed at the common man and students alike. As popular as the book may be, some reviewers assert that by what it leaves out, Friedman's book is dangerous. The authors point to the fact that there isn't a single table or data footnote in Friedman's entire book. "Globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution," says Aronica. Aronica and Ramdoo conclude by listing over twenty action items that point the way forward, and they provide a comprehensive, yet concise, framework for understanding the critical issues of globalization.

You may want to see
and watch
for an interesting counterperspective on Friedman's
"The World is Flat".

Also a really interesting 6 min wake-up call: Shift Happens!

There is also a companion book listed: Extreme Competition: Innovation and the Great 21st Century Business Reformation

Anonymous said...

Your blog on Mumbai was very informational to me. I am embarrassed to say this but, I am like many Americans in the fact that I do not find myself thinking on a global scale. I really have no idea what it would be like to live in such poverty stricken, disease ridden place. I also cannot imagine a place where large amounts of people will never know the pleasure of picking up a good book and getting lost in it or being able to read text useful in everyday life. I think that quality of life should be shared around the world. I realize that this may never happen but it okay to hope. I believe that the future will bring solutions to some of the world’s problems but I do not see the population growth slowing anytime soon so this dream may be fighting a losing battle.