View from my hotel room in Lavasa

Yesterday, Mizuka picked me up at Narita Airport and we stopped by Doutor Coffee for breakfast on the way to our house. As we sipped our small, slightly boring coffee with our perfectly shaped sandwiches, I noticed a quality control staff member taking the temperature of all of the drinks he was served, measuring the distance between the items of food on display and using a stopwatch to time each activity of the poor girl working the shift. I watched this insane obsessiveness as I tried to explain my India trip to Mizuka.

The INK Conference in association with TED was organized by the amazing Lakshmi in Lavasa, India. Lavasa is a new development in the mountains on a beautiful lake. It is a kind of walled garden community that has just opened. Many of the speakers received an email from an NGO asking us to boycott the conference because of the ecological issues caused by the development and the displacement of indigenous people who lived there.

As someone concerned with these issues and as a board member of WITNESS which is fighting against forced evictions, I was very concerned with these allegations. Unfortunately, we were all notified in the 11th hour after everything had been booked and paid for. I scoured the Internet and talked to the organizers and I was unable to conclusively determine the scale of the problems so I made the decision to attend the event and talk to people in the region directly and make up my own mind about Lavasa.

The tricky thing about force evictions is that even if something is legal, it's not necessarily ethical or right - usually the people who are displaced unfairly don't have the law on their side. On the other hand, it's very hard to determine what is "fair" and what the value of a development is on a local economy. I'm still digging into the issue of Lavasa and will write a follow up post if I find out more, but I wanted to note here that I took the issue seriously and am not "brushing it off".

This was my fourth time in India and I've slowly grown to be prepared for the somewhat chaotic nature of logistics and other things and try to go with the flow. This trip was probably the most "successful" trip I've made to India - while I had minor logistical hiccups, it was relatively smooth considering Lavasa was a 4-5 hour drive from Mumbai.

On the trip to Lavasa, I shared the car with Anand Kumar. Anand is a math teacher from Patna, Bihar who teaches math to extremely poor people. His school has had an amazing 212 students who have been accepted to the Indian Institute of Technology.

I attended more session than I normally do at conferences although I missed a few because of conference calls and naps. The stories were great and I really enjoyed meeting so many people who risk their lives every day to do good. I met the amazing Sunitha Krishnan, the anti-trafficking activist fighting against girl child trafficking for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. She risks her life every day as she organizes rescue missions and runs a facility to rehabilitate those she saves. It was humbling and a great experience to share time with people like Anand and Sunitha and hear their thoughts about the world.

There were other great social entrepreneurs and inspiring people. There were many old friend as well as new "keepers" that I met. The atmosphere, people composition and the size was perfect.

Because of my logistics paranoia, I had the car leave 7 hours for the drive and I ended up with 2 hours extra in Mumbai. I met Roshan D'Silva via Twitter who gave me a quick tour of Mumbai and we had a great conversation over coffee. He took me to the beach and showed me how the "bottom of the pyramid" retail worked in Mumbai. It was fascinating and probably deserves a whole separate blog post. Thanks Roshan!

Whenever I leave India, I always end up comparing it in my mind to China and thinking about "the cost of democracy". India is messy, has slums, has its share of corruption, but it is democratic and democracy is messy and inefficient. On the other hand, China is extremely efficient and well organized at one level, but pays for this in a lack of political freedoms. It's not fair to compare the two countries too directly, but the contrast in their approaches as well as the potential of both countries is something that I look forward to watching as the scenarios play out.

2 Comments

Thanks, Joi, it's a fascinating post (perhaps too short, but you promise you'll follow up on a few things). If you visit Mumbai again, you should spend some hours in Dharavi, Mumbai's biggest slum, with its own economy and set of rules.
I missed the INK Conference this year, but I'll attend in 2011.
Last, but not least... Did you dive in Lavasa? :)

Hi Joi san,

I've always admired MIT and its Media Lab, especially after I came across the 6th Sense TED video by Pranav Mistry. It was extremely magical. And if stuff such as this happens at Media Lab, then Media Lab is indeed training some unique tech witches and wizards like Hogwarts.

I came to know of your appointment at the Media Lab through the twitter stream of NY Times and was glad to read some oen calling your appointment as 'radical, but brilliant'.

I liked this article not only because of the candid conversationalist approach, but also because you have not "brushed-off" the Lavasa land acquisition issue. India is changing and the rate is tremendous with the recent all India Anna Hazare Jan Lokpal Bill revolution. So the democracy here is like: "We may be slow, but we never walk backwards."

I am a software engineer in one of India's IT companies and a tech enthusiast with entrepreneurial dreams.

I urge you to keep writing even after you take charge. Thank you! :)

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