I’ve had another action-packed dizzying day of sensory overload in New Delhi, beginning with an early morning interview at TERI, Indiaâ€™s most important environmental NG), (about which more later), featuring a visit to spectacular 17th century Red Fort, the site where Jawaharlal Nehru declared Indiaâ€™s independence 60 years ago, and ending with a dinner under the stars at the home of Sheila Dikshit, the chief Minister of Delhi. My biggest takeaway: Iâ€™m struck by how much we Americans have to learn about hospitality from the Indian people.
I felt that way the first time I visited India in 2004, when I went to Mumbai with MTV Networks, and I feel it even more strongly on this trip. Everywhere, people are warm and welcoming and eager to share stories about their country. I donâ€™t think this is because I work for FORTUNE, which is sponsoring a high-profile Global Forum event this week. (Todayâ€™s speaker was Indiaâ€™s prime minister, Manmohan Singh. Tomorrow, we hear from treasury secretary Hank Paulson and a bunch of CEOs.) I think itâ€™s embedded in the culture, and journalist Edward Luce (who really knows what heâ€™s talking about) says something similar in his wonderful book about India, In Spite of the Gods.
I felt compelled to share my impression at dinner this evening with a couple Iâ€™d just metâ€”Arindam Sen Gupta, the thoughtful editor of The Times of India, and his wife Swati, a delightful and ebullient woman who has studied at Oxford and Stamford. People in India, I suggested, seem to live by the commandment in the Old Testament, when God told the Jews, â€œYou shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.â€ Thatâ€™s when I learned about Atithi Devo Bhava.
Swati explained to me that it is a Hindi expression which means, literally, that â€œthe guest is God.â€ The idea is to treat every guest to your home as if he or she was a God. She said it’s the way people in India–rich, poor and in between–are raised.
Minister Sheila Dikshit, as if on cue, approached a Time Inc. colleague of mine named Dawn Bridges, who was getting chilly. (Daytime temps here are in the high 80s, but it drops to the 50s at night.) She gave Dawn a beautiful pashmina to wear, and stay warm. Later that night, I ran into Dawn again. She was still wearing the pashminaâ€”the minister had insisted that she keep it.
Arindam and Swati were stimulating dinner companions. We talked about many thingsâ€”Indian politics, Hilary, Barack Obama, the glaring inequalities that remain even as Indiaâ€™s economic growth continues unabated, and, of course, climate change. They loved Al Goreâ€™s movie, and said that India is waking up to the dangers of global warming.. The 2004 tsunami, the terrible flooding earlier this year in Mumbai, the melting of the Himalayan glaciersâ€”all this has Indiaâ€™s elites worried. The governmentâ€™s first priority remains fighting poverty and driving economic growthâ€”after all, a third of Indiaâ€™s billion people still live on less than a dollar a day– but they told me that India has too much to lose to ignore the climate crisis. India has subsidies already for wind and solar power. The U.S. can spur action by taking global warming more seriously, evolving into a less wasteful society and developing green, renewable technologies that can be shared with India.
For her part, Minister Dikshit has made â€œGreen Delhiâ€ a key theme of her nine year record as the chief executive of this fast-growing city. Buses and the ubiquitous three-wheel motorized rickshaws (like the one below) are powered by compressed natural gas. Green buildings are going up. Thereâ€™s much more to be done, but itâ€™s a start.