A few years ago I took a trip to India. I was fortunate to meet many of the leaders of the business community in the capital city of New Delhi. Like many people from the US I found myself in surrounded by people educated much better than I was, and I was prepared for that.
I was not prepared for the widespread accepance by the elites that the good of the nation was more important than the good of any individual family dynasty. Sure, they may have just been saying this, but there was some evidence to support it. You may recall that just a couple of decades ago there were state protected monopolies in India for oil, cars, and just about every other major market. These were owned by families and as we learned in Econ 101, protected monopolies are not efficient. Somehow these powerful individual interests were put asside at what must have been an unnerving threat of financial risk to the people in power in exchange for an uncertain payoff as the Indian economy entered the open world markets.
Now surely these families were seeking any advantage they could secure as they crossed the chasm. But even so it was a show of defference to the greater good that we could learn from. While in India the evidence of the caste system is one of the things that you just cannot avoid thinking about. Being from the US, I do not believe the caste system will bring benefits to India. I cannot help but marvel at the way the worlds largest democracy incorporates this complex history in a way that may just work.
This past week I was fortunate to be part of a conversation at Mark Anderson's Fire conference about alternative energy. Mark has done an amazing job with Fire and he continues to push the people attending to think of new things about how the future could be. A few years ago he started the CTO challenge. He assembles the CTOs at the conference into a team and challenges them to think hard about a big problem. Not unlike a code-a-thon, this 48 hour effort is not expected to solve everything, but to apply a burst of creativity and concentrated energy with the hope of advancing the ball down field a bit.
This year the challenge was to think deeply about how to scale alternative energy. Many ideas were presented, and along the way it was just assumed that any viable ideas must steer around the vested interests of coal and oil because those elites would never give up their singular pursuit of their best interests (or give up their lobbiests).
At that moment it struck me that just maybe the responsibility the elites in India feel a for the best interest of their nation comes from the caste system. Could it be that a horrible construct that condemns people to their place for generations also conveys a responsibility to the people at the top to do the right thing?