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Steven McIntosh

Degree:

EMBA

Location:

Cayman Islands

Industry:

Recruitment & HR Consulting

Year:

Jan 2019 - Sept 2020

By Steven McIntosh

The five things I learned during my first week in Delhi

Wait, what?  First week in Delhi?  What happened to Oxford? Well, for the third module of the Oxford EMBA, entitled “Global Rules of the Game”, Oxford went to New Delhi, India.  And so did I.

Here’s what I learned.

To understand India, you need to go to India.

I’ll admit it, I was once a skeptic.  It’s not like me, I know.  

Sure, it’s essential in an increasingly globalized world to have an understanding of emerging markets.  But did understanding an emerging market really require me to spend time in one?  

After all, I felt, I’d learned all I needed to know about developing world squalor already, from seeing it on TV.  Among the many other indignities, the conditions looked so cramped and unsanitary.  People often didn’t have enough to eat and drink.  Did I really need to spend 24 hours in the cramped, unsanitary conditions of economy class air travel, often without enough to eat and drink myself, among the many other indignities, to appreciate it?  

Unlike the journey to Delhi from Grand Cayman, the road to Damascus was short.  It soon dawned on me that in order to begin to understand any place, you need to actually go there.  Well, duh, right.

It’s not a question of knowledge so much as attention.  Lounging around with classmates at the Blue Bar in Delhi’s five star Taj Palace hotel, after a long day sipping from the educational firehose that was Professor Akshay Mangla’s class, it was impossible not to think about India; not to talk about India.  It was inescapable.  Literally. 

All you could see was India.  It seemed to be everywhere.   Above us, Indian sky.  I could just make it out through the smog.  Below us, Indian ground.  Sure, it was opulently marble-tiled.  But it was Indian marble.  I’m assuming. 

All you could hear, was India.  And boy, could you.  Where in other five star resorts there would have been only peace and quiet, the air at the Taj Palace in Delhi was instead filled with the background symphony of a million distant car horns.  And believe me, they never missed a note. (More on this below).

And you could certainly smell India.  The aromatic spices.  The traffic and heavy industry.  The occasional whiff of some exotic flora that wafted past incongruously like a fart in a day spa.  One day my iPhone helpfully informed me the air quality was neither high nor low but simply “hazardous”.  Just like their eponymous tonic water, the air left a bitter aftertaste.  No wonder life expectancy in Delhi rivals Glasgow’s for brevity.  No kidding: it’s 69 in Delhi, 72 in Glasgow.  The main difference being that Delhi’s short life expectancy is due to its high number of poor people whereas Glasgow’s is due to its high number of poor life choices.

To strike a more positive note, life expectancy in Delhi is improving.  On current track it should overtake Glasgow around 2025.  It would be an ironic reversal of fortunes if Glaswegians started emigrating to India to improve their families’ standard of living.  I’m not sure haggis and neeps will catch on in Delhi the way Indian food caught on in Scotland.  Then again, perhaps Indians, like most civilized peoples of the world, never found any other use for the bits of animal that go into a haggis.  It could be a welcome new revenue stream for Indian butchers.

Of course, unlike Scotland, the taste of India is world renowned and the hotel food was superb.  My only complaint on that score would be too much of a good thing.  I love curry, just not for breakfast. 

The Delhi module was the first time I’d had Indian food before noon since raiding the fridge for leftovers as a severely hungover student in Glasgow circa 1997.  And speaking of severely hungover students eating Indian food for breakfast, a big shout out to the Taj Palace chefs and the SBS staff for organizing Friday’s magnificent birthday cake, not to mention Thursday evening’s excellent alumni networking event.

So in summary, skeptical EMBA candidates of the future, yes, you DO need to go all the way to India.  It will be worth it, trust me.

I’m sorry for ever doubting you, Oxford.

Indian hospitality workers are hospitable to a fault.

Indeed, they’re often so busy trying to help they don’t stop to find out what it is you need help with.

Take the porter who insisted on “helping” me with my luggage upon arrival at the hotel circa 4 am on Saturday morning.  Never mind that he hadn’t stopped to find out which bags were mine and wouldn’t stop insisting it was no problem for him to carry them for long enough for me to point them out.  The important thing was not which bags were mine nor where the bags were going but that I would not be the one to carry them there.  Which in the end was a blessing since, judging by the time it took for us to be reunited at my room, they must have traveled quite a distance.  

I found that even when they were being uncompromisingly helpful Indian service staff were exceedingly polite. Unless they were talking to one another, when they seemed to communicate using mostly opprobrium.  I started thinking Hindi must be one of those languages where a word has a different meaning if it’s not conveyed with the appropriate tone of anger (like German).

The dinner buffet in the hotel’s Capital Kitchen was sumptuous.  There was so much selection it was impossible to choose.  The other thing that made it impossible to choose was that every label contained at least one important word untranslated from Hindi.  This necessitated a lot of lifting of lids and peering into richly colored gloop.  As if any amount of peering would help me determine the contents.

One evening my classmate Mike found me wandering befuddled among the main courses.  “I’m trying to figure out which one is goat”, I explained.  (I don’t do goat).  Taking a leaf from the Indian hospitality-workers’ handbook, Mike stopped a passing chef to ask him which of the dishes was goat.  Of course the chef got the wrong end of the cinnamon stick, proclaiming “Ah, you want goat?!  I will bring you goat!”.  Again, my protestations fell on deaf, but extremely enthusiastic, ears.  Next thing I knew I was being chased round the buffet by a chef with a ladle full of… goat something I presume… weaving in and out of diners like the put-upon damsel in a Benny Hill sketch.  In the end I faced it like a man though.  By running to the bathroom and hiding till the coast was clear.

I hope the goat went to a good home.  

Life in Delhi is not quite a highway, but you may still ride it all night long

While we came to India to learn about The Global Rules of the Game, driving in Delhi is a game in which the rules remain a strictly local enigma.

I found it mesmerizing.  Why is every car straddling two lanes?  Why is that tuk-tuk pulling out in front of us with impunity?   What does all the honking mean?  What do “stop” signs mean, come to that?  Apparently not “stop”.

The best way to synthesize driving in India is to forget for a moment that you’re a human being in a deceptively vulnerable metal box on wheels and instead imagine you’re a fish in a shoal.  For a country so ambivalent about the benefits of the free market, driving in India is an object lesson in laissez-faire competition.  Indian roads are what would happen if a country let Ayn Rand write their Highway Code.

At first blush Indian road users appeared to obey only one rule: If there is space in front of you, go.  Thus, driving in India is not so much about getting from A to B over the course of a journey as it is about gaining as much territory as possible from one moment to the next.

Approaching a busy roundabout?  Go.  Six inches between you and the tuk-tuk in front?  You’re wasting five and a half inches.  Old lady hobbling through the traffic?  There’s nothing like the cold hard steel of a BMW bumper to put a spring in her step.  Another car merging from the left?  Not if I get there first.  Want to advance but lacking any usable square metre of road?  Why let perfectly drivable sidewalk stand vacant?  You get the point.  

Mannerly western drivers would have no chance in Delhi.  To yield to other road users would be to stay put indefinitely.  

And while in any other city continually pulling out in front of other road users would eventually end in tears, luckily in Delhi no vehicle ever gets up enough speed to not be able to stop in time.  

Vacationing in Delhi must have been how fairground carnies got the idea for bumper cars.  The only difference is that at the fairground no one cares if they damage their own bumper car.  While drivers in Delhi want to get to where they’re going as quickly as possible (which is to say, not very) what they definitely do not want is any damage whatsoever to their vehicle, the cost of which presumably outweighs whatever economic advantage their journey promises to yield.  This is where, I observed, for many Indian drivers, the brake pedal comes in handy.  

There is also, for such a seemingly impatient and egocentric driving community, a remarkable level of deference to the lives of other road users.  This was a convention that a number of cyclists on rickety bicycles, as well as pedestrians and feral cattle, seemed happy to stake their lives upon.   In most western societies pedestrians have to keep their wits about them to avoid an untimely death.  In India, it is the drivers that must keep their wits about them to avoid a pedestrians’ untimely death.  India probably has this the right way around.  

So the only rule as important as going whenever you conceivably can, is stopping whenever you absolutely must.   Like a massive real-life multi-player game of chicken. 

For such a chaotic looking system it seems to make for remarkably safe, if not exactly leisurely, driving. 

HR in India has some way to go

As an HR Consultant I couldn’t help but notice some… how should I put this… questionable allocation of human resources.  India seems to be a country that believes if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in numbers. 

There’s an aphorism in corporate India that doesn’t exist in the west – “throwing people at the problem”.  I guess when you have an inexhaustible supply of cheap labour, who cares if it’s efficiently employed?  

Well, the employee, for one. It must be very difficult to advance in your career when your employer doesn’t particularly care to improve the value of your labour.  Not to mention to stay awake.  If David Graeber thinks the proliferation of bullshit jobs is a problem in the West these days, he ought to spend some time in India.

Consider for example the three (count ‘em) audio technicians on hand during our lectures (held in a Taj Palace function room).  Each technician was responsible for the round-the-clock maintenance of approximately four radio mics.  Luckily there was a remarkably frequent need for their intervention or they might well have dozed off.  To be fair, for all I know they could have debugging python in between their fleeting appearances.

A couple of the companies we visited told us it was almost unthinkable to let someone go in India, not to mention legally difficult. 

Whether this kind of social employment helps or hinders the Indian economy was a matter of some debate.  Sure, a lone audio technician may have been adequate.  But why put two other people out of work in the name of corporate efficiency?  While there’s an alluring logic to this in a country unable to meet the basic needs of its unemployed masses, this is essentially an argument that the more inefficient companies are, the better off the Indian people will be.   I’m pretty sure history has debunked that idea.  

People need a chance to be productive, to learn new skills, and to improve the skills they have.  Companies upskilling employees who eventually leave is one of the few positive externalities in a services-led private sector economy.  Keeping someone employed in a job that isn’t strictly needed, or a job they’re not very good at, makes the mediocre the enemy of the good for the company and its employees. 

That is not just an argument for liberal employment markets but also an argument for countries looking after their unemployed masses.  Which is easier said than done in a country with 31 million unemployed people and a million young people joining the labour force every month. 

I’ve heard Scotland described as “the Saudi Arabia of wind energy”.  I think that makes India “the Saudi Arabia of Human Resources”.   I for one look forward to the day that billionaire Indian recruitment firm magnates are lining up to buy Mayfair apartments, Bentleys and Premier League football clubs.  

India is poised for greatness

And, as the saying goes, if it’s not careful it always will be. 

While much of the week focused on the tremendous challenges faced by India’s government, leafing through Hans Rosling’s magnum opus Factfulness on the way home was a good reminder that, while things could be a whole lot better for many Indians, many things in India are much better than they were just a decade ago.

GDP per capita doubled in the last ten years.  At the same time the fertility rate plummeted and now matches the USA at 1.8 children per woman in urban areas.  In rural areas it’s still a little higher at 2.5 (but I bet the extra half a kid comes in handy during harvest).  According to Hans Rosling, families having fewer children is one of the surest ways to improve living standards.  As a father of two rambunctious tweens in private school, I can vouch for that. 

I can’t be the first person to describe India as a land of contradictions [citation needed].  One particular contradiction that seems to have held it back is its long-running attempt to combine Chinese-style state planning with American-style democratic dysfunction.  It must be hard to plan every aspect of your citizens’ lives when you also have to worry about getting re-elected.  But what would a billion hard-working people do without the guardrails of an over-bearing state?  Oh, I don’t know.  Start businesses?  Find decent jobs?  Achieve greatness, quite possibly.

Luckily under Narendra Modi the state has been getting somewhat less over-bearing.  India climbed a mighty 53 places in the World Bank’s ease of doing business ranking in the last two years.  It’s now up to 137th in the table for ease of starting a business and 163rd (out of 190) for ease of enforcing contracts.  Sign me up. 

What with all that bureaucracy fettering its economic development, the only invisible hand in India might be the one directing traffic in Delhi. 

In closing, I must say one unexpected benefit of all this time spent flying around the world has been all the time to think.  They say that one of the reasons humans sleep is for our brains to organize and consolidate the information we’ve consumed during waking hours.  I feel long haul flights perform the same function for me after EMBA modules.  I feel quite sorry my classmates that only have to drive home to Bristol.  (Well, not from Delhi obviously.)

Not to mention all the time I’ve had to write.  On that note, if you’ve made it this far (well done), you’ll be glad to hear that, for my next EMBA module, Oxford is back in Oxford.  That should save us both quite a bit of time.

EMBA classmates in front of Delhi’s stunning Red Fort.  The tour guide started explaining why it was called the Red Fort but unfortunately I started laughing so hard that I missed the explanation, so it remains a mystery.
The opulently decorated bunker at the Taj Palace that was our home for the week. Prof. Akshay Mangla has the floor. Fire hose not shown.
Find me in this class photo to win a free round-trip economy class flight from Cayman to Delhi.
Qutb Minar tower in Delhi. Not the most flattering picture of Dan – I can assure you he looks much less misshapen in real life.
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