India: "Fallen Angel" of the BRICS?

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Brendan Doyle's picture

As I’ve previously written, a large factor in my decision to come to India was the hope for valuable “growth market” experience. In essence, I was banking on India’s sustained status as a fast-moving and fast-developing global economic superpower. So, I was blindsided when – mere weeks into my Indian experience – economists and policy analysts around the world began to castigate the country as the “fallen angel” of the BRICS markets – and a dubious locale to conduct business.

Goldman Sachs economist and “father of the BRICS” Jim O’Neill noted in early August, as the rest of the world was focusing on the London Olympic Games -- “The country’s huge power blackouts highlight once more the scale of their challenges, and at the same time, ongoing economic indicators lead more to scale back cyclical GDP forecasts. In addition, they are the one BRIC nation that doesn’t appear to be here on mass in London. What is the matter with you guys?”

Reading O’Neill’s words, I had to question myself: Had I made the right decision to leave the relatively stable U.S. markets for the Indian economic firecracker?

I thought about my own acclimation to Indian infrastructure – both physical and bureaucratic. The most painful day of my four-months here so far was in my second week, when a colleague and I waited five hours in the Foreigner Regional Registration Office to obtain temporary residency status. The wait was exacerbated by the fact that a surprising amount of the bureaucratic work was done manually – with actual paper. I had to place my signature on numerous arbitrary forms during the waiting period, and watched office workers thumb through reams upon reams of documents and manuals looking for form numbers or protocol guidelines. I was reminded slightly of the United States Department of Motor Vehicles – a government office also famous for interminably long waits and endless paperwork.

That day happened to coincide with my first – and most severe – bout of food poisoning. Word to the wise, a poorly air-conditioned government office in the middle of Mumbai monsoon season is literally the worst place to get nauseous.

I did not experience the infamous July power blackout – which mainly affected Northern India and was the largest in history – but I and my roommates have had challenges with other public services. Trains here are famously over-crowded – at rush hour, full-on shoving matches are common to garner a spot in a rusty rail-car packed to the brim. Most native Mumbaikers I have befriended choose not to ride the trains, opting instead for their own auto-rickshaw, taxi or personal car. But for those on a tight budget, trains are the quickest, most economical choice – even if they are not the most comfortable. I have ridden on trains numerous times, and frankly have gotten accustomed to the jostling nature of a train ride. However, many of my roommates who have been here longer collect horror stories of trains breaking down, people riding on top of the cars, or scheduled trains not showing up at all.

Regardless of the accusations of overwrought bureaucratic processes or uncomfortable public transportation, I was still surprised – and saddened – to witness this perception of India as a “difficult” place to grow and start careers/businesses. I have thoroughly enjoyed my work here, and have met many other expatriates who are thriving amidst the challenges. One of my roommate’s frequent dinner companions is a former American military-man in his early 30’s who moved here to start his own cyber-security company – and business is booming. I have also become acquainted with numerous Europeans who work for well-respected corporate brands, like Amazon and Coca-Cola, and have been stationed in Mumbai to help lead their company’s expansion into the exciting Asian marketplace.

Essentially, India may hold unique challenges, but I disagree with its characterization as a “fallen angel.” As I have stated before, so many Indian citizens I have met are acutely aware of their country’s growing pains, and the prevailing attitude seems to be always ‘upwards and onwards.’ O’Neill’s comments may not paint the country in the best light, but I think the point may still be one of optimism: India is the world’s largest democracy, and if it can fill the shoes of an economic super-power, the world as a whole will benefit.


Dear Brendan,

After reading your blog my first reaction was anger-"How can a foreigner comment on my country and talk about it problems with just a 4months. Infact it was a very stereotypical emotional Indian reaction of "how can you come in my house ; criticize it". On the same hand, I do agree that all that you listed are very blatant problems in Mumbai city. But I think generalizing your experience for the whole country is a litle unfair.
I am presently studying in New York City at NYU , and I can definitely tell you a lot of things that are so wrong in the city. For example, the roads have crazy potholes where water collects during rains, the traffic is really bad, the subways are so dirty & sometime smelly that I am even scared to sit on the waiting benches. The crime rate in the city is really bad, people get mugged in broad day light just $10. About the government functioning- I sent a refund form to MTA like 2 months back , and when I called them to inquire I was told its still in the process. The kind of junk food people eat here is such a serious problem as you will find overly obese people all over. I was involved in reserach study about people with no bank accounts in New York City, and you will be surprised that a very significant percentage is still unbanked in the financial capital of the world. The internet speed goes slow suddenly in bad weather conditions and its the same for phone receptions.
Rest assured, I love the city and the kind of gloab experience I am getting here is invaluable. To conclude I would like to say that even the most developed nations in the world are suffering from many common regular issues. Every nation has its own development graph, and if we compare India to what it was 20 years ago and what is now, you will see a steep rise in growth.
To conclude, India is improving with each passing day and to become a super-power takes time and an integrated economic growth. :)

Hey Vasundhara
Thanks so much for reading the post. As I have detailed in many previous posts, my experience in India so far, by and large, has been overwhelmingly positive. With this post, I was trying to respond in my own way to Jim ONeill's sentiments about why India was having certain economic growing pains."
You are absolutely right that the U.S. has immense problems of its own, all very well-documented. American crime and obesity, as you've noted, are very serious issues, and there's no easy policy formula to solve these problems. Indeed, one reason that I have enjoyed my Indian experience so much is that, like in America, there seems to be very active dialogue regarding how they can ameloriate any issues affecting their country. This encouragement of intelligent discussion is why I am not surprised that India has been growing so fast, and why I am confident it will continue to grow into its role as an economic super-power.

Brendan, in my view, Jim is pointing out issues that preclude India for achieving is true potential. As you must be aware, corruption is ubiquitous in India. Politicians in India are busy looting the country and do not seem to have any will or motivation to enforce reforms for common good. I am of the opinion that unless Indians hold their politicians accountable and demand a better quality of life, things wont change much in India. Whilst I do think that India offers good growth opportunity, I am not convinced that it can achieve economic super-power status until these basic issues have been addressed.

Hey Nakul, thanks for commenting. I certainly agree with your thoughts on India corruption; even in day-to-day municipal operations (airports, police stations, etc.), I frequently witnessed bribery, corruption and short-sighted profiteering. From what I understand, the Parliament of India is very ineffective, and the past six months seems to have really tested the India 'growth market' narrative. Like you, I hope for the best, but am really not sure if there's a policy mix that can solve the country's problems, or just a pure government overhaul.

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