Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving Day !!

Happy Thanksgiving !! Here's my piece on who I want to thank on Thanksgiving published in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle today :

Brave soldiers

Thanksgiving Day 1994 found me in Tanga, Tanzania, a small coastal town on the Indian Ocean. I was working with a Singapore-based trading firm trying to get a cashew processing unit operational. I had been invited to lunch at the house of one of our local partners. As I got out of the car and walked to his home I saw a small, nicely maintained cemetery across from his home. As I was early and am a keen history buff, I stepped inside. It was a graveyard maintained by the Commonwealth Graves Commission commemorating Allied soldiers who had died there during the world wars.

As I walked to one of the commemorative walls, and started reading the names, my hair stood on edge. Listed there were countless soldiers from my native India who had died there valiantly battling for their British masters. Turned out, Tanga was an important battle site in the African campaigns during both world wars.

So every Thanksgiving I say thanks to the countless soldiers who fight and die bravely in distant lands, some for causes they believe in and others as pawns in games played by their political masters.

Seth is on the Board of Contributors.

Monday, November 19, 2007

NYC vs. London : Global Financial Capital ?

A very interesting piece by Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London in the Times of India. Ken is somewhat of a maverick, however what he says here makes a lot of sense.

As a New Yorker, what struck me most about the piece was Ken reaching out and writing a piece in India about the long term role of India as a growing economic superpower in the future of his own city : London. A manifestation of long term strategic vision and acceptance of ground level realities while not getting bogged down in talk about a hoary past. Can't visualize Mayor Bloomberg (NYC) doing something like that. NYC ( like rest of the US) seems to have become internally focused since 9/11 and risks losing it's position as the Global Economic Capital.

This should serve as a wake up call to the political and economic leaders here in the US. The world is surging ahead and we seem to have been caught up in a single point agenda : "War". While that may be important, losing the focus on the other balls in the air : Economy, Trade, Global Competitiveness etc. will make us weaker in the long run. Need of the hour is for leadership that has the ability to "multi task". Let's hope 2009 has that in store for us.

Ken Livingstone's piece. I have added some highlights to the points which piqued my interest as a New Yorker. :

Britain As India's Colony

19 Nov 2007, 0000 hrs IST,Ken Livingstone

India and Britain inhabit a world changing so rapidly that to bring out its character let's deliberately put it in stark, even 'provocative', terms. In 20 years time, only three people are guaranteed a place at the top table of the world's affairs - the presidents of the US and China and the prime minister of India. By then, the world will have shifted so much that if there were to be war between Britain and India, Britain would be more likely to end up as a colony of India than the other way round. Fortunately, for everybody concerned with humanity, has progressed to the point where colonies no longer exist and war, while not eliminated, has diminished. But such facts show the intensity of current transformations.

Globalisation, which is the framework for these shifts, cannot be conceived purely as an economic process. Those who believe that we will trade with, and invest in, each other’s countries more but everything else will stay the same are in for a severe shock.

Economic interaction is certainly accelerating. In London, it is a striking indicator that India now has the largest number of foreign inward investment projects after the US, and the spend of Indian tourists coming to London exceeds Japan’s. But overall London’s huge success, with studies showing it pulling ahead of even New York as an international business centre, is primarily due to its understanding of the shifts produced by globalisation.

New York’s dominance as the 20th century’s international financial centre was based on the US generating the overwhelming share of the world’s capital — accessing which was only possible in New York. This is no longer true.

Today, the greatest sources of world growth and capital are India, Russia and China. As recently as 2001, 54 per cent of IPOs of more than $1 billion were in New York.

Last year that fell to 17 per cent. Onerous and protectionist US restrictions need no longer be accepted. Economically the current problems in the US financial system, and the dollar’s, will further increase the attractiveness of London compared to New York.

The ramifications of globalisation socially are equally clear, and most pronounced in the most advanced international business centres. A third of London’s population was born abroad and 40 per cent of New York’s.

No one will solve the problem of having an international city without a very large number of foreigners. This reinforces the cultural, educational, policing and other consequences flowing from globalisation.

Trade always produced cultural influence but in the age of the internet and mass communications the speed of such influence is amplified greatly. Globalisation has not only an economic but also a profound cultural dimension. In the world’s great cities this mutual influence is the greatest.

Young people in London, Mumbai, Delhi, New York, or Paris have lives that are converging rapidly. They use the same technologies to make their lifestyle and have many similar aspirations. That in some cases they cannot yet directly talk to each other is merely a technical translation problem computers will solve during the first half of this century.

Two years ago, a commentator remarked that the lived experience of someone in London is already in many ways more similar to that of someone in Paris than life in London is to that in a small English village. Naturally this does not mean we will all change and become the same.

Culture changes more slowly than economy or politics. Leaving behind eras of conquest and colonialism means that culture change is now voluntary with people integrating from many societies to make their lifestyle - the iPod dominates everywhere while Chak de! India recently became the first Indian film to enter London’s top 10 most watched films.

The most fundamental shift of all is that current transformations mean 500 years of ‘West European’ cultural dominance, linked to its expansion across the world, is ending.

India is not merely a huge economy but one of the world’s greatest cultures. I constantly repeat in speeches in London that if people think the cultural impact of the India in our city is already great, which of course it is, in reality it has hardly begun.

This is the real basis of the new relations of London and India. The pre-eminent position to which India is heading is naturally not determined by the relative worth of individuals in Britain and India - which is entirely equal. It is determined by India’s rapid economic growth and that only partition obscures the fact that the Indian subcontinent already has a greater population than China.

Britain will never again be the world’s largest economy. However, London is the world’s most international city - a reality, not a boast. That internationalisation, in turn, makes London not only the world’s leading international financial centre but simultaneously a powerhouse of creative industries, of design, marketing, advertising and public relations - the best single stop most things Indian companies need to go global.

That equation - India is a rising economic superpower, London is the world’s leading international business centre - indicates the real common interests of both. Mutual interest for the future, not reminiscences about the past, is the firmest basis for friendship. (The writer is mayor of London.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Interesting Op-ed piece from Tom Friedman

Op-Ed Columnist
No, No, No, Don’t Follow Us

Published: November 4, 2007

India is in serious danger — no, not from Pakistan or internal strife. India is in danger from an Indian-made vehicle: a $2,500 passenger car, the world’s cheapest.

India’s Tata Motors recently announced that it plans to begin turning out a four-door, four-seat, rear-engine car for $2,500 next year and hopes to sell one million of them annually, primarily to those living at the “bottom of the pyramid” in India and the developing world.

Welcome to one of the emerging problems of the flat world: Blessedly, many more people now have the incomes to live an American lifestyle, and the Indian and Chinese low-cost manufacturing platforms can deliver them that lifestyle at lower and lower costs. But the energy and environmental implications could be enormous, for India and the world.

We have no right to tell Indians what cars to make or drive. But we can urge them to think hard about following our model, without a real mass transit alternative in place. Cheap conventional four-wheel cars, which would encourage millions of Indians to give up their two-wheel motor scooters and three-wheel motorized rickshaws, could overwhelm India’s already strained road system, increase its dependence on imported oil and gridlock the country’s megacities.

Yes, Indian families whose only vehicle now is a two-seat scooter often make two trips back and forth to places to get their whole family around, so a car that could pack a family of four is actually a form of mini-mass transit. And yes, Tata, by striving to make a car that could sell for $2,500, is forcing the entire Indian auto supply chain to become much more efficient and therefore competitive.

But here’s what’s also true: Last week, I was driving through downtown Hyderabad and passed the dedication of a new overpass that had taken two years to build. A crowd was gathered around a Hindu priest in a multicolored robe, who was swinging a lantern fired by burning coconut shells and praying for safe travel on this new flyover, which would lift traffic off the streets below.

The next morning I was reading The Sunday Times of India when my eye caught a color photograph of total gridlock, showing motor scooters, buses, cars and bright yellow motorized rickshaws knotted together. The caption: “Traffic ends in bottleneck on the Greenlands flyover, which was opened in Hyderabad on Saturday. On day one, the flyover was chockablock with traffic, raising questions over the efficacy of the flyover in reducing vehicular congestion.” That’s the strain on India’s infrastructure without a $2,500 car.

So what should India do? It should leapfrog us, not copy us. Just as India went from no phones to 250 million cellphones — skipping costly land lines and ending up with, in many ways, a better and cheaper phone system than we have — it should try the same with mass transit.
India can’t ban a $2,500 car, but it can tax it like crazy until it has a mass transit system that can give people another cheap mobility option, said Sunita Narain, the dynamo who directs New Delhi’s Center for Science and Environment and got India’s Supreme Court to order the New Delhi bus system to move from diesel to compressed natural gas. This greatly improved New Delhi’s air and forced the Indian bus makers to innovate and create a cleaner compressed natural gas vehicle, which they now export.

“I am not fighting the small car,” Ms. Narain said. “I am simply asking for many more buses and bus lanes — a complete change in mobility. Because if we get the $2,500 car we will not solve our mobility problem, we will just add to our congestion and pollution problems.”

Charge high prices for parking, charge a proper road tax for driving, deploy free air-conditioned buses that reach every corner of the city, expand the existing beautiful Delhi subway system, “and then let the market work,” she added.

Why should you care what they’re driving in Delhi? Here’s why: The cost of your cellphone is a lot cheaper today because India took that little Western invention and innovated around it so it is now affordable to Indians who make only $2 a day. India has become a giant platform for inventing cheap scale solutions to big problems. If it applied itself to green mass transit solutions for countries with exploding middle classes, it would be a gift for itself and the world.

To do that it must leapfrog. If India just innovates in cheap cars alone, its future will be gridlocked and polluted. But an India that makes itself the leader in both cheap cars and clean mass mobility is an India that will be healthier and wealthier. It will also be an India that gives us cheap answers to big problems — rather than cheap copies of our worst habits.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

To Vote or Not to Vote?

A piece by me on the importance of exercising the right to vote as Election Day in the US nears appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle today:

Do not waste right that I as an immigrant have yet to gain
Deepak Seth Guest essayist

(November 4, 2007) — Election Day is poignant for me, for I'm not yet a U.S. citizen and therefore am barred from voting. I must remain a "permanent resident" for the mandated number of years before I'm granted citizenship, with its many privileges, mainly the right to vote.

Making it doubly painful is the fact that I hail from India — the world's largest democracy, though much younger than the U.S. democracy. India's history of peaceful transition through the electoral process gives me a strong appreciation of the power of the vote and the changes it can bring about in civil society. This is in marked contrast to the violent regime changes that plague many countries.

And so, denied for now the right to vote in America, I am surprised by the increasing number of Americans who could but don't vote. The reasons are many, but two of the most common are:

  • Our votes do not count; Big Business, lobbyists and the like heavily influence election results.
  • Elections don't make any difference. No matter who wins, policies, directions stay pretty much the same.
However, in many cases, the truth is that people are so busy that they just don't want to take the time to exercise their franchise. It is indeed a very sorry state of affairs.

What makes it more pitiable is that in the recent years, the United States has taken a leading role in spreading freedom — democracy — to various parts of the globe. Iraq and Afghanistan are cases to point. Meanwhile, in the United States itself, people shy away from exercising that same freedom that was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Politicians themselves have contributed to voter apathy. Campaigning has become very vitriolic and more a fight than an earnest debate. As in any fight, many people just choose to stay away rather than sully themselves in what they perceive to be muck. Some politicians also prefer to deal with the "moneybags" rather than the "huddled masses." But what one needs to remember is that the vote creates the politician and not vice versa. The vote is the most powerful weapon in a democratic society, and one should not be wary of wielding it.

Come Election Day, people should proudly wear their "I have voted" stickers. It is for defending and extending this right to vote that countless Americans have died. As for me, I count the days till I can join this great continuing, evolving endeavor: American democracy.

Seth, of Brighton, is on the Board of Contributors.

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