India's tropics: where the engineers are

Roland Gruber designs mining equipment for a German firm in Leipzig that didn't exist five years ago. He is in southern India to aid a Madras engineering firm that didn't exist five years ago either. "I show them, here, here, and here it is wrong," Mr. Gruber says, stabbing his finger in the air at an imaginary blueprint of a conveyor belt he'll ship to a South African mining firm.

At night Gruber goes to the American-style 24-hour coffee shops springing up near marble-laden hotels that advertise five-star quality at three-star prices. "Madras is where the engineers are," he says.

Today, the modern frontier of ancient India is its tropical South. If India is viewed as a heaping ice cream cone, then the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andra Pradesh, and Kerela are at the bottom tip. They've long been neglected. But not anymore. In terms of foreign investment, thriving colleges, high-tech industry, and road- and hotel-building - the South is rising as the dynamo of India. An Indian Horace Greeley might today say, "Go South, young man!"

Actually, here in the South itself, the cry is "go to the West." So accomplished is the talent pool coming from new technical colleges in Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Madras, that 20 percent of the coveted American "H1B" visas for engineers - worldwide - come from here. Whereas the agonized debate in the North is over whether to "globalize" the Indian economy, in the South it is already happening.

Approved foreign investment in the four southern states jumped from $2.9 billion between 1990 and '93, to $62.8 billion between '96 and '99 - says the Indian Foreign Investment Promotion Board in Delhi.

This rise is creating tensions in India between emerging states, most of which are in the south, and the central government - over economic policy.

"There are two Indias, and the distance between them is still growing," argues Madras-based writer A.S. Panneerselvan, speaking of the contrast between performing states and the more backward states.

Power and dominance in India have long been exercised along a northern belt from Delhi to Calcutta - the old Grand Trunk Road of the silk traders. This is traditional "old India" - ruled by the populations and Brahmanical order emerging from tribes streaming from the northern Caucasus. The southern populations, darker physically, claim to be Dravidian and indigenous - and are a different ethnic group with different traditions.

"The gods here are more playful," says M.S. Pandian, a leading scholar at the Madras Institute for Social Development, speaking of the deep South - whose palm-tree parks and fountains, easy-going attitudes, and "quality of life" indicators are as different from the North, as say, San Diego is to the Rust Belt cities of the US Midwest.

Yet the South, with a tradition of education, compared with the trading tradition of the North, is now a leading performer. The soil of the South, for example, has produced India's first "modern" leader - Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of Andra Pradesh. Mr. Naidu, who attracted Microsoft owner Bill Gates, who opened his first offshore research office in Hyderabad last year, is a young visionary. Naidu had the temerity to negotiate directly with the World Bank for loans, a rarity here. He is widely talked about as a future prime minister. (No national Indian leader has ever come from the South.)

Or take B. Suresh Kumar, owner of Suresh Fasteners in Madras. Mr. Kumar's family business long produced radiator caps for Indian autos. But a number of years ago Mr. Kumar went abroad to find out how to market his product on a larger scale. Knowing that Indian goods were bound to be inspected with a higher degree of skepticism, he decided to meet international norms of product standard - and vigorously sold his caps under that standard. Now some 20 percent of his growing output goes to General Motors in the US.

When told that Madras was building 11 new mid-size hotels for business people traveling here, Kumar shot back, "Eleven? We need 111 new hotels!"

What went unsaid is how unusually expansive and open such a view is, inside the Indian business elite. "There is less xenophobia here," says one leading business writer. "Less talk of swadeshi'" - the Indian principle of limiting business to Indian firms.

Nor is the Indian South simply an empty vessel waiting to be filled, or exploited, by new marketeers looking for an easier environment to inhabit.

Instead, the South represents a highly unusual mixture of trends and traditions that are only now coming to the fore. In terms of business and culture, the South is conservative. Yet as an intellectual and social matter, the south has a liberal - if not radical - history.

In Tamil Nadu, for example, women dress from shoulder to ankle. Business leaders like Kumar talk of conservative approaches to markets - lauding such principles as "core competency," which stresses staying within one's own area of familiarity and not trying to make both soap and televisions.

Yet the South, particularly Tamil Nadu, has always defied efforts by the North to "Sanskritize" their culture, the term used to indicate an effort by the North to extend their Hindu traditions to the south. Tamil Nadu was the first state, in the 1920s, to rise against the Brahmanical hierarchy in Delhi and demand more equal treatment for the lower castes, and to resist efforts to make Hindi the local language. That movement, known as the "self-respect" or Dravidian movement, reached an apogee in the 1960s. Today, the Dravidian movement has petered out. But its legacy is one of education, social reform, and upward mobility for lower castes - part of the cultural context that has allowed the South to "globalize." At the height of economic liberalization in India during the mid-1990s, the cabinet of Prime Minister I.K. Gujural had no fewer than four ethnic Tamil ministers in charge of key economic portfolios.

Pressure from southern states to become more "autonomous" from Delhi continues to build. Such pressure is even more significant a factor for the future of India's federal system. Already, state chief ministers are complaining they must pay high rates of Delhi-produced treasury bills to cover the low productivity and high social costs of states that are further under the control of the central government than they.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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