Upstart | Technology

History and geography: India’s entrepreneurial divide

“Why are people from the Western half of India (from the Sindhis and Marwaris, to South Canarese and Malayalis) more entrepreneurial than people from the Eastern half?”

I asked this simple, possibly provocative question on Facebook and Twitter, more out of curiosity about the answers , rather than any intention of crowd-sourcing material for this column. However, given how good the answers were, and that one of them suggested it would be very ‘entrepreneurial’ of me if I used these answers in my column, I might as well.

Apart from a couple of responses pointing out how there were successful entrepreneurs in certain pockets that can be termed easterly, nobody challenged the hypothesis. Everyone else dived straight into the reasons for this inequity.

The most common reason offered was that the West Coast had access to shipping routes of both the Roman and the Arab variety. Then there was one train of thought bubbling up through my friends’ comments, that instead of focusing on the advantages of the West Coast, concentrated instead on the drawbacks of the East Coast — rugged, lacking in ports, and not part of any historical trade routes.

The next most common explanation proffered dealt with the drawbacks of the Western Coast — deserts, hills, and other such geographical hindrances, as well as droughts and famines. These shortcomings somehow made the natives of these parts seek out greener pastures in other geographies, where all they had going for them were their entrepreneurial abilities. While this explanation sounds romantic , neither geography, nor history, especially that of weather patterns, gives any credence to the explanation.

There were also just as many people talking about how fertile the east coast was, thus lulling people from that region into not taking any risks. Again, very romantic, but knowing how a lot of the most successful entrepreneurs have always been from those privileged sections of society, that were never forced to take any risks, this hypothesis too held very little water.

Somewhere amongst all those comments, one did hit the mark for me. This was by a friend who was neither from the east nor the west, but had enough context of both sides. She pointed out that it all boiled down to exclusionary history. That it was the fault of a past time where communities defined much stricter boundaries amongst themselves, trusting their own, but no one else. And that this was truer in the west than the east.

While I do not disagree with that view, I see it through a lens that produces a slightly different picture. Historical and geographical reasons have forced the west to be the sort of land where divisions are much more frequent (and exclusionary as my friend rightly pointed out). But this variegated cracking of the societal glass also allowed for a culture where it was okay for the less-advantaged to take risks, and one where risks paid off more often than not.

On the east however, neither history nor geography encouraged any kind of egalitarianism. And hence, much lower incentives to take any sort of entrepreneurial risk. It seems counter-intuitive that I posit that a more ‘socialist’ society produces more entrepreneurs. But in India, where definitions thankfully are always fuzzy, it does seem to be the truth. Or something like it.

The author heads product at a mid-sized startup in the real estate space

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 6:15:57 AM |

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