India’s Innovation Front Lines, Part 7: Of Trains, Countryside, and The Great Indian Laughter Challenge

1/5/09Follow @vinit44

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sickness so far, neither catching a virus nor bacteria via contaminated food or water. My travelling companion has a bad cold, and I want to be cautious. I offer him a Motrin from my medicine kit.

We slow down to pass by Suwasa. There are a few schoolgirls, all dressed in school-colored salwar kamiz, riding their bicycles on the road parallel to the train tracks. Their braided ponytails and dopatas (long scarves) trail in the breeze as they chat and ride. The landscape is increasingly turning yellow, with fields and fields of mustard. The country side appears to have more people. A child is flying a kite that apparently iz not made of traditional tissue paper, but of foil. I had met a businessman who is supplying foil for kites, and my first thought was the environmental damage all these abandoned kits would cause.

Stopped in Kota for 10 minutes. Got a chance to step out and stretch my legs. Lunch was being loaded. Crossed the Chambol river, which is really a stream threading the middle of a huge flood plain. Got into a vigorous conversation with my cabin mates about the problems in India. This seems to be a favorite topic of conversation. Just found out the Sikh gentleman is Pratap Singh Fouzdar, who is a minor television celebrity who won the second season of a reality TV show called The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. That’s why everyone keeps stopping by to say hello to him. On top of this he is a minor industrialist, manufacturing synchromesh gears for jeeps and army vehicles out of Agra. I am astonished by the level of entrepreneurship in India. There is no social safety net, so everyone is hustling to make a living. Every commercial transaction has an element of negotiation, generally humorously exchanged. There is surprisingly very little pleading or bitterness evident from the poorest of street hawkers when you don’t buy—someone else from the mass of consumers will.

The other cabin mate is a Bihari from Patna, who is a project manager for Neptune, a manufacturer of industrial power conditioning equipment. He commented on the sarkari (subservient) nature of Indians: conditioned in pre-colonial and colonial times to a hierarchy that exploited them—peasants by landowners (zamindars), they in turn by the Rajas, and the Rajas by the British. This hierarchy sucked wealth out of the country during colonial times.nizammudinstation

We arrived in Delhi almost two hours late—so much for Lalu-inspired efficiency! The car park at the Nizammudin train station was packed and chaotic. As with everything in India, great intent, lousy execution.

[Editor's note: This is Part 7 of a travelogue written by Xconomist Vinit Nijhawan, who is in India visiting venture capitalists and startups with an eye to bridging the Boston and Indian startup ecosystems. We published Part 1 on December 5, and you can find a guide to all Nijhawan's previous India posts here.]

Vinit Nijhawan, an entrepreneur, angel investor, and former venture capitalist, is Lecturer and Executive-in-Residence in the Boston University School of Management. Follow @vinit44

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