Passage to India

The Fate of India: On Whose Hands?

In European cities, all the way from Paris to Kiev, there is a noticeable pattern; every city has a ‘must-see’ church, a world-renowned art museum, and a modern commercial center full of the exact same stores, with the exact same items. Most European cities are worth visiting, but after you’ve been through enough of them, they begin to blur together.

There are still treasures from the past that triumphantly stand out against the modern bland commercial backdrop; Antoni Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia, the medieval Prague Orloj at Old Town Hall, the Roman Colosseum, etc. Through their continued existence alone, these monuments impart a sense of pride in the local population, and serve to remind them of their cultural heritage.

But the more time you spend in these Western urban metropolises, the more you start to see them for what they really are: labor camps for locals, tourist-traps for foreigners, and ultimately, consumption centers for international asset managers.

Local cultures around the world are being replaced by a pervasive global empathy that homogenizes and sterilizes all in its path. Gone are the Florentine leather shops, replaced with industrial factories stuffed with imported Chinese laborers. Gone are the Spanish bull fights, reduced by ~80% in recent years over ‘animal welfare concerns’. Gone are the arts from France. La Belle Époque has clearly passed. European culture has become so globalized that it is now an almost humiliating experience to visit what passes as a café in Paris or a pizzeria in Rome.

The rest of the world is different.

In recent years, I’ve started spending more time outside of the West. I trekked across Burma and stayed with the Shan. I hiked the Inca Trail and saw the stonework at Machu Picchu. I chartered a boat and explored Phang Nga Bay. My most recent trip was to Maharashtra, India.

Despite a conscious effort on my part to avoid unfiltered water and unhygienically-prepared food, on the second day, I fell sick with food poisoning. A friend’s family-doctor quickly prescribed some medicine without even having to go in for a visit. As I learned, ‘things can be done’ in India if you have the money or connections. This is a refreshing type of freedom now almost completely erased from the West.

India is also very filthy. I’ve spent a good amount of time in the global south, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this. There is trash everywhere. Piles of plastics litter the landscape. Store owners regularly burn their trash on the side of the street after closing up shop for the day. Urban shepherds drive livestock right down city streets in search of food scraps. You must dodge their horns and their droppings. Although Prime Minister Modi has made a concentrated effort to address the situation, much of population seems to think that the responsibility to clean should fall on someone else.

The pollution is much worse than I expected. After a just few days, the inside of my nose felt burned from the air. Just a few breaths outside was enough to aggravate it. Local scooter-riders, sometimes three or four to a seat, cover their faces with cloth to protect themselves from the air. I’ve never been around a river that smells before, but when I experienced this in Rajasthan, I had to consciously stop myself from rethinking my position on the World Economic Forum. Rather than focus on the implementation of technological systems of control, perhaps the government should instead start with something small, like cleaning the rivers.

Many roads have no street lights, no lanes, and no traffic rules. It is not uncommon to see someone driving against traffic on the side of the highway. On an overnight drive to a tiger safari in Ranthambore, I saw two things that I will never forget: 1) exiled cattle wandering around on a dark highway at night, cut loose by farmers when they ceased to produce enough milk. Our driver dodged them at speed, swerving from one side of the road to the other as his headlights briefly illuminated them; 2) a makeshift crew of local village women, wearing no work clothes or protective gear, hammering in the road reflectors from their hands and knees on the pavement. Working-class men and women alike gather under the bridge every morning and are offered various jobs for the day by local businesses in need of labor. They pack a lunch, and are returned to the bridge when their shift is done.

Regardless of the politics du jour, it’s clear that the Indian government actually looks out for their people and actively seeks to preserve their culture. Alcohol is strictly regulated, drug addiction is minimal, and TikTok is banned. This, however, did not stop my friends back home from constantly sending me links to the Chinese psyop, despite repeatedly telling them that I could not access the site.

The Indian government extends this nationalist stance to corporate governance as well. For example, in order to operate in India, Starbucks is forced to partner with Tata Global Beverages (an Indian company) in a 50:50 joint venture. Philanthropy also takes a different form than it does in the West. The Birla family, owners of an industrial conglomerate corporation, fund the construction of beautiful white marble temples throughout the country. Rather than funnel their wealth through the Western-NGO complex, they have built physical places of worship that vitalize the populous. The Birla Mandir temple in Jaipur was both one of the newest and one of the most remarkable sights that I saw in India.

Unfortunately, many older temples and ancient sites have recently fallen into disrepair due to restrictive Covid policies. I made an attempt to visit Galta Ji, a Hindu temple nestled between the cliffs, built on a natural spring. But after getting shaken down for being white by local youths running the ‘entrance’, inside I discovered women bathing in extremely dirty river water, cow dung everywhere, and the entire complex to be overrun by monkeys. Thousands of monkeys. This was the first time I ever felt seriously in danger of contracting a disease.

The economy still functions in India: it hasn’t been captured yet. Saving is still possible, and, therefore, so is family formation and upward mobility. The housing market didn’t crash in 08′, interest rates on savings accounts are 5%, and GDP grows at ~7% almost every year. Family wealth is often held in gold, and for the wealthy, in land. In contrast to the West, there are a seemingly endless number of employees eager to assist you at retail stores and restaurants. When I explained to an Indian friend how poor service is now in the West, he simply could not understand how any business with bad service could survive. “Won’t people hear about it and just stop going?”, he wondered.

In India, each state has their own culture, and most have their own language. The Maharashtrians are the most populous ethnolinguistic group (tribe) in Mumbai/Pune. They are extremely family-centric. Young couples have children. There is no meaningful external immigration in Maharashtra. They view people from other ethnic tribes within India to Maharashtra as immigrants. They are proud of the forts their ancestors built, and know their heritage well. From a demographic perspective, they are self-sustainable. This imbues ethnic and national pride.

Neighbors are very close. They commonly share meals together and keep watch over each other’s children and property. Apartment doors are usually left unlocked. In the city, most people live in high-rise apartment buildings. Family members will directly ask you how much money you make. Maharashtrians generally regard the British favorably, aside from their role in deliberately stoking Hindu/Muslim division, and view their influence as a positive and civilizing force in India.

India imports both Russian and Western gas. They manufacture dual-fuel cars that can use either LNG, or regular gasoline. They have separate fueling stations, where you are greeted by an attendant in a hard hat or gas mask who fills your tank. When my driver stopped at a gas station, he told me that we must get out of the car. I thought this was a joke. Then once we exited the vehicle, he then told me that I could not use my cell phone. I again thought he was joking. “It may cause a fire or explosion”, he said. Despite the lack of enforcement of some rules, others are strictly observed. Security guards stop your car and search your vehicle’s trunk at most gathering places. Women must pass their purses through metal detectors at the mall.

Remember how you were told that it was only low-skill manufacturing jobs that were lost to Asia? Unfortunately, the truth is much worse. There are vast office complexes in Pune occupied by Fortune 500 companies (or their contractors) that employ tens of thousands of Indians as analysts, associates, and directors, working what otherwise would have been $150,000+ jobs in the West, for around $20,000 USD.

One of the largest companies in India, Infosys, is an IT outsourcing company founded by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s father-in-law, Narayana Murthy. A co-founder of Infosys, Nandan Nilekani, briefly left the company in 2009 to join the Indian government as chairman of the new Unique Identification Authority of India to oversee the development and implementation of India’s biometric national ID system. This digital ID is the cornerstone of Indian banks QR-based digital payment applications. I was shocked to see just how many Indians use digital payment applications and how comfortable even older members of the population are with using the technology. Even street vendors use it.

In an unknown Indian city, among many millions of residents, surrounded by hundreds of nondescript apartment buildings, a father provides for his family, while a mother cooks lentils and rolls chapati bread. They buy their meat from the local butcher, and their milk from the local dairy. Their children study tirelessly for competitive entrance exams at the local technical university. The grandparents live nearby, in a sun-dried mud brick structure, in a small village not quite yet lost to time. They own their apartment and have handmade custom furnishings. They frequent a family jeweler where they buy silver ornaments for religious offerings and gold for familial milestones. They visit their temples and honor their gods.

India is a country charting its own course. It has border skirmishes with China, normal trade relations with Russia, and sends its most capable youth to the West. By carefully navigating international waters, it has managed to retain its cultural identity in the modern global order. Although messy in certain areas, India’s overall showing on the world stage has been quite an achievement, and they should be proud of how they have preserved their culture in the face of globalization.

But the sharks are circling. Bollywood has mostly been captured. Popular actors now signal their allegiance to ‘global goals’ rather than national interests. Recently, a strategically-placed short-sellers report targeted Gautam Adani, one of Modi’s earliest supporters and chief financial beneficiaries of his plans to transform India. After Adani’s company’s stock price tanked, costing him over $100 billion in less than a week, George Soros called it ‘an opportunity to democratize India’.

When I left, I couldn’t help but reflect on how incredible it is that such a different world exists just a plane ride away. Will the fate of the West be the fate of India, too? One would hope it’ll be up to them to decide.

Present Witness is an investor and threat analyst providing analysis through an economic lens.

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