I write this while sitting on a train taking us from Agra to Delhi. We arrived in Agra yesterday, Sunday, and spent an incredible day that started with a sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal and ended with visits to rural villages.
We made sure to include rural villages in our Learning Expedition trip to give students some sense of what life is like for the majority of Indians. Professor Kopalle delivered an introductory lecture in which he reminded us that people at “the bottom of the pyramid” comprise a large percentage of the world’s population, and that developing products and services that meet their needs can be a highly gratifying and profitable undertaking. While this might seem crass on some levels, the point is that in the developed world especially, most products and services are created with more affluent customers in mind, driven by the belief that only these customers have purchasing power. However, this effectively deprives low-income customers of the opportunity to consume products and services that could enrich and improve their lives.
With these lessons in mind, our group – 21 strong – split into multiple teams to visit different hamlets clustered around the village of Barara. At the hamlet that I visited with three students, we were greeted with flower garlands and daubs of paint on our foreheads. We then sat on a raised, carpet-covered platform in the courtyard of a house with women and children seated in front of us and men standing or seated around the perimeter. The women and children started playing a tabla (a type of drum) and singing folk songs, and eventually one started dancing. They asked us to join in, and one brave student danced with them, to the delight of all present. We then toured the hamlet.
The hamlet consisted of a series of small concrete-walled houses arrayed along narrow dirt roads. I would say that it was about the size of a city block. There were cows and buffalo wandering about, and many of the yards featured piles of cow patties, which are used as fuel for cooking and heating in the colder months. We saw a small school but no medical clinic. I was told that folks from the hamlet would go to the clinic in Barara if they fell ill or to Agra for something more serious. Villages tend to have women trained in midwifery.
The economy of the hamlet rests mainly on milling. They showed us their mill, which is powered by a diesel generator because they only have electricity 3 – 5 hours/day. They sell their flour to government-run distribution centers or at the Agra market. To supplement their income, they grow and sell other crops and some members of the village work in Agra. There was ample evidence of consumerism. Apparently, almost all of the houses had televisions, and many residents had cell phones and motorbikes as well. There were many ads for Vodafone, a mobile provider. I am certain that mobile phone services are sold in small, affordable increments, on the model of the famous Hindustan Lever “sachets” of shampoo and the like, and I suspect that the same may be true for the other products and services as well.
Today we will experience a sharp contrast as we return to Delhi to visit the offices of HCL, an IT services company that competes with Wipro, Tata Consultancy Services and the like. There we will be surrounded by products of the best undergraduate and graduate institutions, whose daily work is closely entwined with the global economy. Tonight we are going to the home of Vibhuti Nayar T’12 for a home-cooked vegetarian meal. We are very privileged to have someone open their home to us. Tuesday it’s off to Mumbai, the business center of India. I will post more from there!