From the old frontier to the new


It’s dusk as you get off the plane. The first thing you notice is the acrid air, full of soot and exhaust. After that, it’s full sensory overload. Faces pressed up against the glass around the outside of the airport terminal. Soldiers armed with machine guns guarding the exits.

Welcome to Delhi, India. It’s hard to know where the inside of the terminal meets the outside—the night air is a soupy room temperature. The parking around the building is packed with hundreds of people carrying name signs for arriving passengers. Taxis, from yellow and green three-wheelers to old English-style Oxford cars—and their drivers—form an impregnable wall ready to assail anything that moves.

Once on the road, you’re overwhelmed by the traffic and even more by the erratic driving. Tiny, dented cars honk and shove between the hand-painted trucks, which are only allowed on the streets at night to reduce congestion. Narrow slum alleyways wind toward wider streets, then on to freeways still under construction.

Arriving in “new” Delhi, you notice the walled communities, some defended by razor wire, and all with guards tending small open wood fires at the gates. Your driver gracefully dodges a line of huge grey cows that appear, apparition-like, out of the darkness along the side of the road, and turning to look you notice the rows of grim tents, the hanging laundry, dusty bicycles and junk lining the roadside between the high walls and the traffic. When you stop at a streetlight three filthy little girls surround the car begging for rupees.

India is everything you’ve seen in pictures and more. Writing about it is difficult. The contrasts and paradoxes are enormous. New Mercedes Benzes alongside camel carts, that sort of thing. Yet, for all that, this is the new frontier. Business is booming here, and despite the recession the Indian GDP is humming along at an 8% annual growth rate.

Of course, what makes India so appealing to business is also the very thing that first confronts the newcomer—the huge population. That population, now over a billion people, is growing at a rate of 100,000 every day, and more than half of them into poverty. Having tasted the rewards of the global economy, this is a society that is, in a word, motivated.

The contrast with Canada couldn’t be more extreme. Here, the people are few and the landscape is resource-rich and under-populated. The Canadian challenge is finding the people to do the work at hand. The Indian challenge is finding the work to deal with all the people at hand.

As a Canadian, I’m always surprised at how easily we Canadians, and Americans too, can move up and down the social ladder in other, more vertically structured societies. In an afternoon we can meet with a senior diplomat in a boardroom and later in the day sip tea with the local workers building a house in a slum. This social mobility allows us to connect the social dots in very short order.

The most vertical societies are usually much older than horizontal societies. That’s certainly true in India, where Brahmins have been the upper class and Untouchables the lower class for thousands of years. By comparison, our society here on the East Coast of Canada is relatively young, extending back 300 years or so, and even this is old by western Canadian standards, where the culture is less than 100 years old. Where ruling classes and families have been in place the longest, the distance between the wealthiest and the poorest members of society seem to be the greatest.

Thanks to the global economy India is undergoing an extremely rapid cultural revolution. Educated and skilled workers are increasingly well paid, and the net effect is a leveling of society. The effect, if they can pull it off, will be social rejuvenation.

At the same time, we in North America are becoming a more mature society. In other words, the distance between the wealthiest class and the rest of society is widening. Fifty years ago senior executives made only 5 to 20 times more than a line worker. In large corporations in the US today the ratio is more like 350 times greater. Both here and in Asia, the social landscape is shifting. The effects are tangible. Homelessness in North America is rising, an indicator of things to come—even here in St. Stephen, where homeless alcoholics camp in the bush beside the chocolate factory.

All of this, in my mind, has to do with shifting frontiers. As the American pioneering journalist Horace Greeley once said, “Go West young man.” To Greeley the attraction of the western frontier was obvious. The pull of the west is still underway. As America has run out of frontier, the new western frontier is the East. China, Southeast Asia and India are the new frontiers.
But the new frontier is different in many ways from the American West. Where the American frontier was all about landscape, the new Asian frontier is all about mindscape. Or, put another way, the new frontier is all about the vast potential contained in large human populations.

The Indian people understand this innately. The emphasis on higher education is far greater there than it is here. I was told that Indian families can spend half their annual incomes on education, which, by our standards, is unimaginable. Individual Indians are investing in mindscape.

For my part, I was experiencing this investment firsthand. The reason for my trip to India was a new $40 million international medical sciences and technology translational institute being built just south of Delhi. I was there to help some people from MIT get the project organized—as Americans, like the Europeans before them, build the new frontier.

The devil, they say, is in the details. As great as the Indian potential is, so are the challenges. For example, how does one educated and then elevate the living standards of half a billion people while creating a market economy? It’s no small task. Yet, from all appearances—the construction cranes, new malls and highways—the Indians are doing just that.

Yet the ultimate difficulty might be the Western paradigm. As the East adopts the Western industrial development model, the West is struggling to invent a new, self-sustaining environmental-energy economy. Perhaps it’s on that thought, if we’re lucky, that the landscape frontier and the mindscape frontier will meet.


Popular Posts