tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Taj

Many of the stories I have read about India in the business press note its inadequate infrastructure. While companies can feel confident about the labor force that might built a product, it might feel uncertain about its ability to move the product from one place to another, from the factory to the port. Our first day in Delhi gave credence to such concerns.

It was 78 degrees out when our plan landed in Delhi at 12:35 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 20. Upon deplaning, it took an hour to get through the immigration station and collect our luggage. We were greeted warmly by the staff at the Hyatt Regency, where we are staying, but it was 3 before anyone got to bed.

By 8 the next morning, we were on a bus, headed 120 miles southeast to Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal. What an education I received, simply looking out the window during the five-hour trip. I saw nine people sleeping under a bridge, wrapped from head to toe in blankets. There were lots of animals, including elephants, camels, monkeys, orangutans, oxen, donkeys and cows. Some were tethered to posts, others roamed free, but none of them seemed to move too fast. The traffic, already disorienting to this American because everyone drives on the left side of the street, was intense, with little attention seeming to be paid to road signs, including stop lights and lane markers.

A four-lane road leads to Agra and about half way there, we see thousands of people marching in the opposite direction, many of them carrying flags. They are taking up a full lane, forcing traffic on that side of the street down to a single lane. Our guide explained the protestors are marching to Delhi, where thousands plan to meet Oct.29 for a massive demonstration against the government. The issue has to do with the confiscation of their land by government for economic development purposes. V.K. Singh, of Mercury Travels Limited in Agra, gave us an example. He said the Tata Group, a large Indian manufacturing company, worked with the government to acquire land in Calcutta in order to build an auto assembly plant. The construction displaced many locals. They do not believe they were fairly compensated for their land, and so now they protesting. Apparently, this is going on all over the country.

During the bus ride, our host Gov. Tim Pawlenty, worked the crowd, stopping at each row to talk to at length. I am told this is a significant change from the behavior of the previous governor, Jesse Venture. When he led a trade mission to Mexico, he apparently never visited with any of the people accompanying him. I talked to the governor about the sister city agreement he is set to sign with Haryana on the trip. I ask what he thinks of the idea of a neighborhood, like the one I live in, arranging for a sister neighborhood relationship. Linden Hills, I commented, might be interested in such a thing. Gov. Pawlenty said he liked the idea and encouraged me to contact the India Center at the University of Minnesota to pursue it.

The Taj Mahal, or simple “The Taj” as locals call it, is spectacular. There apparently are concerns about pollution in the area near the landmark, so we get off the bus a mile or two away and get on electric buses, which take us the final distance. We are given about 90 minutes to explore. It is a cloudless, warm day, and the Taj stands magnificently on the horizon. It is built atop two platforms, which the guide said makes it appear taller than it actually is. Four towers on the corner of the building give the monument additional visual appeal. They are constructed to lean outward at a 2 degree angle so that if an earthquake ever struck the area, they would fall outward rather than onto the Taj itself.

The area is crowded, the number of people increasing the near to the Taj as I advance. We are required to remove our shoes, or to put slipper-like coverings over our shoes. I feel a little bit like an astronaut slipping the big blue cloth coverings over my black Rockports. I took many pictures of the building – probably 25 or so – and so is everyone else. They say the Taj is the most-photographed building in the world and I believe it, based on what I see.

A door far too small to accommodate all the people, lets visitors in and out of the Taj. Upon entry, however, I am disappointed. I expected more. It is dark inside, and all of the walls are white. This is a magnificent building, but inside it does not compare to the great cathedrals of Europe like Notre Dame in Paris, or St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Time goes quickly and we have to return to the bus. Dozens of vendors approach me to buy souvenirs, mostly little wooden statues, books and jewelry. They name a price and then a lower price. Eventually they ask me to name my price. I have no interest. I am not going to buy anything here. They are very persistent, continuing to lobby for my attention through the window even after I have found my seat on the bus.

We exchange stories on the bus; a couple of people in the group saw Mick Jaggar, accompanies by a very tall women. Sam Roy of Mankato even got a picture of them.

On the way back, we stop at the home of Ararati and Vishnu Lall. They are in the jewelry business, selling all over the world. They have a beautiful home in Agra, and treat the entire delegation of refreshments, consisting of tea, other drinks and cake. Vilash Lall, the sixth generation son, tells us a little bit about doing business in India. He noted the instability of the state governments. “They last only eight or nine months,” he said. Many organizations get around the law by setting up phony “front” businesses, while the real unauthorized work goes on “in the back.” He did not provide details, but one can imagine.

He also expressed some concern over a certain amount of greediness, saying that a typical hotel room in India might cost the equivalent of $300 or $400 per night, when then exact same room can be had in other major cities around the world for $150. “People are going to find it too expensive to come here,” he lamented.

The Lalls are relatives of Gopal Khanna, commissioner of the State of Minnesota’s Office of Enterprise Technology. I asked him what he thought about the country’s prospects for continued growth. “India has three things going for it,” Khanna said. “First, the people here have a genuine interest in learning and education. Second, the people here are entrepreneurial. It is in their DNA. It has always been that way, for thousands of years. And third, the country is willing to accept people of different philosophies and religions. We are a true pluralistic society. This is the mark of a true democracy.”

“Do you think the economy will lift a half a billion people from the ranks of poverty to a middle class lifestyle?” I ask.

“It is a 100-year project,” he said.

It is about 6 p.m. when we begin our ride back. I am tired, having slept only a few hours the night before. The drive is going smoothly until 7:50 when we come to a complete stop on the highway. The two lanes of traffic going northwest are not moving, and some vehicles have cross the median and are attempting to advance on the road going the opposite way. That two-lane portion of the highway has been reduced to one lane to make way for on-coming traffic. Even with this accommodation, however, nobody is moving.

There is uncertainty about the situation. What is the hold up? How long will it last? People in other cars are getting out and walking around. Finally, it is determined that the road is being blocked by those protestors we saw on the way out. They have set up camp on our side of the road and no one can get through. We have no idea how long we will be tied up, and at one point many people get off the bus and walk over to a restaurant for something to drink. A couple of times, it looked like we were going to advance, but after a few feet of movement, those hopes were dashed.

Everyone on the bus seems good natured about it. We are told that if you plan to do business in India, you have to “roll with the punches.”

At 10:15 p.m., we finally break through the log jam and traffic starts moving again. We are 98 kilometers or about 60 miles from Delhi. I spend the remainder of the ride talking to Sam Roy, president of EPS Technologies in Mankato, Minn. His company is bringing a new product to market which will vastly increase the efficiency of diesel engines. The product already is in use in Thailand, and he wants to bring it to India. He said truck and bus owners can save big money with his product, in addition to substantially reducing green house gas emissions. He was looking forward to the remainder of the mission trip, during which he planned to meet with potential Indian partners.

At about midnight, we roll into the hotel driveway. It has been an amazing day. India is a land of great potential, I can see. But logistics are a problem. If a major highway can be shut down by a protest, how reliable is the transportation system? Companies that set up here to manufacture need to be able to count on moving their products in a timely fashion. They need to be able to rely on the road systems, train system, airports and seaports. Perhaps they can, but the delays on the highway would really concern me if I had to rely on them on a regular basis.

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