A Billion On The Move

India is on the radar screens of international corporations as well as media for many good things happening here. Many are appreciative of what is happening in India but many are skeptical too. To the Paris-based daily, ‘International Herald Tribune’, India is consumed with the idea of becoming a superpower, ”an obsessive conviction that India is destined for international supremacy is spreading fast.”

However, Arun Maira of Boston Consulting Group in a recent article ‘A Billion On The Move’ in Times of India presents a story that appears to be more rational.

Earlier this month, 450 strategy advisors to boards of companies in 50 countries arrived in Delhi to check out the India story for their clients. Last year they had visited China.

China makes a much better first impression. Indian airports and roads are chaotic in comparison to the marvels of Chinese infrastructure. The next impression of India for the consultants was further chaos. The morning papers were filled with stories of demolitions in Delhi, traders’ protests and the ongoing tussle between the courts and government.

Nevertheless, further encounters during the week, beginning with a candid meeting with the finance minister, changed their minds. By the end of the week, they said they were truly impressed, and would recommend to their clients that India may be emerging as a better long-term bet than China.

The FM had admitted that the infrastructure was falling short of the booming economy’s requirements, and that democratic political process made progress less orderly than in China. However, he pointed out that India, with its enormous diversity, could not work without democracy. A delegate pointed out the loss in economic efficiency by the clumsy diversion he saw of an Indian highway to avoid a small Muslim tomb that came in its path – something not seen on China’s super highways. The minister replied that if the tomb was sacred to some people, then it had to be respected, regardless of the inconvenience to others. That, he said, was the Indian way – the international audience applauded.

It might have impressed the visitors, but irritates the Indian people at large, and a sense of demoralizing helplessness dawns. Why can’t the local authority effectively take the people concerned in confidence and impress upon them the national importance of giving up the traditional views in all such cases of tomb or temple? It may appear difficult, but not impossible to reach an amicable and quick solution to avoid the excuse for delays in the projects.

During the week, the consultants broke up into smaller groups and visited manufacturing companies and numerous service companies around Delhi. They returned from these visits convinced that Indian manufacturing companies are equal to the best in the world, and that Indian service companies are ahead of the best, creating new business models and setting new standards.
However, even after getting convinced with the capabilty of Indian manufacturers and service sector, will the report of the delegates make a big difference to tilt the scale of FDI in favour of India? But then why should India bother so much about it? Perhaps India must have a business model that can move the billion ahead.

And here Mr. Maira gives the success story of Andhra Pradesh self-help group.

In Andhra Pradesh, 8 million women are members of self-help groups at the grass-roots level. The groups function autonomously. They determine what help they need from a level of organisation above them. In turn that level, in the village or mandal, determines what it needs from a level above it to fulfil its own role. Thus, from the bottom-up, empowered women are scaling up an organisation that presently engages 8 million women, which is many times larger than Singapore’s total population.

In the minds of the delegates, the picture of the nation went beyond physical impressions; it went beneath the numbers of economic growth; and looked behind international rankings of competitiveness in which India does not do well. By going deeper, India’s real strengths could be touched. A nation is not merely an economy, and the well being of its citizens cannot be improved only with better infrastructure.

India is a story of a billion people on the move. Mr. Maira concludes:

First, large and complex systems can be, and perhaps must be, moved bottom-up rather than top-down for the movement to be sustainable.

Second, if components of the system are human beings who seek dignity and freedom, then they must be agents of change and not merely beneficiaries of change produced by people above.

Third, the question to ask is not merely what people want as consumers, but what they want as citizens.

Finally, the foundations of a democracy must not be built only upon people spiritedly defending their own rights – which in individualistic societies is often the case – but as the FM eloquently explained in his answer to the query about the highway, it lies in respect for the rights of others.

All’s well for MNCs, barring infrastructure

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