India has many things to teach us about business and sustainability
By Anna Chif
“One, two, three, RUN!” yelled someone, and 10 of us rushed across the street to catch our bus. The rest remained on the other side, too afraid to never make it alive. We were 30 BCom and MBA students from McGill on a trip to India with professor Karl Moore, for reasons both academic and charitable.
As part of a joint BCom/MBA program, we met leaders of business with the goal of understanding, among other things, the needs of the poor in India. We used what we learned in association with an organization called Nanhi Kali in an effort to raise money to send disadvantaged children to school. With our emphasis on the use of social media outlets, we would surpass our initial goal of $10,000 and raise a whopping $17,900 in a little over 10 days.
But, at this precise moment, all we wanted to do was cross the street.
Traffic in India does not stop. It is chaotic and disorganized. Yet, the truth is that we would have probably not been hit, regardless of how slow or fast we crossed the street. We would not have been hit because Indian drivers are used to navigating under any circumstances and avoiding accidents.
True, the roads and highways are shared by cars, buses, motorcycles, scooters, oxen, cows, dogs, horses and people, all of which are going at different speeds. One would inevitably predict that accidents are not only inevitable, but also frequent and violent. However, reality is quite different. There are very few accidents in India, and even fewer fatal accidents. On the roads, Indians play by their own rules, which are difficult to understand for Westerners. We are used to a predictable life driven by respect for clearly set rules.
However, it is not only their driving that seems to beat all odds and impress us. Business development is another example. In a country where the most defining and apparent aspect is poverty, it is hard to imagine how a business can develop successfully and display a growth factor at least twice that of most firms in North America.
Yes, labour in India is cheap and thus outsourcing has created jobs. Yes, enormous consumption and competition in the West has stimulated many industries in Asia. But at the same time, the most impressive IT companies have successfully grown and are now surpassing such firms as Accenture and even, in some aspects, IBM. Business is driven by uncompromising values: integrity and respect for the individual, for the family and for the community. The natural outcome of such practices is the development of corporate social responsibility. And not the kind that we know in North America, when companies devise “sustainable” practices to satisfy their customers’ desire to feel good about themselves by purchasing “green” products. Illusions. In India, the concept of sustainable and environmentally friendly practices is taken more seriously.
We visited the headquarters of two leading IT firms in India, Wipro and Infosys, and were amazed to see entire campuses (300-plus acres ) running on entirely renewable energy, using recycled water and paper. These companies, and many more in India, have a commitment to reducing poverty and illiteracy in their country and have undertaken projects, over the past decade, to build schools and universities, and to train unskilled workers into more competitive ones. Of course, business practices are not perfect, and of course, sustainable activities are undertaken to benefit a firm rather than the population as a whole. Nevertheless, in a country where most people live on the streets, it is surprising to see such forward-looking practices. Indians are aware of the problems we theorize upon, and take steps to address them.
By no means is India a fully sustainable country with modern practices benefiting its entire population. But it is far from being as chaotic and run-down as many imagine it to be. It has managed to develop sophisticated ways of doing business. And while the rest of the world has stepped back and is observing in amazement the development of this nation, the control slowly shifts to the East, where against all odds, accidents are infrequent, business is growing, and sustainable practices and not only a myth.
We were able to see, in our brief immersion into the Indian culture, that there is hope, and that in the coming decades, a shift in standards of livings and education for the entire nation will take place.
Anna Chif is a BCom student at the Desautels Faculty of Management.
Category: Notes from the field