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The Emerging India Summit 2011—a kaleidoscope of insights

By: Suzanne Sen
April 2011
The Emerging India Summit 2011—a kaleidoscope of insights

Cooperation, trade, and innovation—these are the reasons why humans have been able to develop and improve their lives dramatically over eons according to Matt Ridley in his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves—and these were also the shining threads running through the presentations and conversations at Emory University on February 24 and 25, at its second conference on India’s impact as a growing world power. Through panel discussions, featured talks, and a keynote address by Her Excellency Ambassador Meera Shankar, the event explored the themes of innovation, healthcare, foreign policy, and commerce. Khabar brings you brief notes from some of the sessions.

● In a time when immediate widespread access to news can shake governments, the Welcome Address was appropriately given by Vice Provost for International Affairs Dr. Holli Semetko, whose research on uses, contents, and effects of news is internationally recognized. Ms. Lakshmi Chandrashekar and Ms. Isha Sharma, co-presidents of the Student Executive Committee for the summit also welcomed the audience.

● Dr. Benn Konsynski graciously moderated a panel of business executives on innovation, and one panelist, Vivek Wadhwa, a Forbes “Leader of Tomorrow,” continued with a fiery luncheon address, shattering myths about US/Indian/Chinese research and development: 1) Do China and India graduate more engineers than the US?—No, China’s numbers are not validated, and when we compare “apples to apples,“ US numbers are similar to India’s. 2) Is there a shortage of engineers in the US?—No, US companies hire abroad because it is cheaper; many who are hired have 2- or 3-year degrees, so the degree is a secondary factor. 3) Are Americans less skilled than Indians and Chinese?—No, they are productive and give high quality work. 4) Is there a correlation between PhDs and innovation?—No, India produces relatively few PhDs but innovation is happening on a massive scale in pharmaceuticals as well as IT (Amazon Kindle circuitry!), aerospace (collision avoidance systems), even consumer appliances (our next generation being designed in India!). 5) Is China becoming the R&D hub?—No, China has high numbers of PhDs and excellent labs, but they excel in imitation, not innovation.

So “how has India defied gravity?”—Although India’s infrastructure and educational system are in general weak, business is booming, for India has “mastered the art of workforce development.” Since resumes do not reflect potential, nor degrees skill, India hires by testing for ability and then training intensely. This produces local managers who are better than NRIs, and these managers train their employees, producing strong workplace bonds. Employee development is monitored by continual appraisals; turnover/attrition rates are among the lowest in the world; and profitability rises. A model worth emulating!

Wadhwa also warned of a coming US brain drain. Although the many Indians who came and founded companies here created jobs for Americans, xenophobia slows the huge number of Indians waiting for green cards. Nowadays, people coming to study plan to return to India, and this will be a loss for America unless immigration rules change.

● In a panel on building global brands, Dr. Rajeev Batra of the University of Michigan gave examples of well-known companies that are now Indian: Tata has purchased Tetley, Jaguar, and Land Rover. Many companies in India, as well as Taiwan, Turkey, and Brazil, are expanding their spheres. Companies like Wipro, trying to compete with IBM, are challenged by smaller organizations, and more negative initial quality and trust associations, so strategies might be a) follow the diaspora, b) enter lower end markets, c) aim for niche expertise, d) go to growth area where few brand loyalties exist, or e) begin with one item in Walmart. Innovation can aim in many directions: quality products, and lower cost publicity instead of advertising, for example.

Former Ambassador Teresita Schaffer, who speaks 8 languages and has studied more, lent her insights gained from over 30 years in the US Foreign Service. She was a principal expert on South Asia for the State Department and is now Director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). She described issues of transportation, energy, education, and the complexity of doing business in India—not just from bureaucracy, but also land issues. Dr. Bhagirath Majmudar called for the heart, an emphasis on integrity of character, Dr. Batra acknowledged the top problem as being corruption, and Ambassador Schaffer noted that “everything and its opposite can be true at the same time” there, and declared that in 10 years we’ll be able to say “we’ve accomplished a lot.”

● The Keynote Address on “Why India Matters” was given by Ambassador Meera Shankar, who also has over 30 years in the Indian Foreign Service. Nodding to Mark Twain for getting it right by recognizing India as “the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, the great-grandmother of tradition…,” she went on to underline India’s current importance as the largest democracy, whose economic transformation could make it “an anchor of stability and opportunity for the global economy.” Emphasizing respect, she noted, “Today the fact that we have a woman Head of State, a Sikh Head of Government and a Muslim Vice President is perhaps the best statement of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious nature of our state.”

She projected, “We are likely to surpass the population of China by about 2030. … India remains a large developing country, [so] instances of successful programs in various areas in India could very well be relevant in other parts of the world where there may be similar conditions.” With a young population, the workforce can serve both India and international firms. The consumer market is expected to become the 5 th largest by 2025, providing opportunities for business. Cell phones, for example, are no longer a luxury: a vegetable vendor may say, “Call me in my office” (his cell phone)! Infrastructure also presents business opportunities, requiring an investment of close to US $ 1.7 trillion over the next decade. A growth rate of 8.5% is expected this year, not based on exports, but on people-centered expansion of the middle class.

Innovation is leading to lower costs and new markets: the Nano is a car costing about $3000. Vaccines are being produced, in collaboration with Emory, for low cost use worldwide. E-choupals (choupals are traditional gathering places in Indian villages) are cyber kiosks where farmers can find prices of produce in the local markets and get weather reports, and mobile banking and tele-medicine are other examples. Work is being done for Africa, and “ India is now increasingly being seen as a solutions hub, a base for conducting sophisticated R&D and a technology innovator.” The economic future depends on a stable global order, and “in Asia … India is seen as an anchor of moderation and stability.”

Questions centered on the visa problem, education, barriers to US companies interested in solar (the government subsidy was the reason), and energy security.

● The healthcare panel the following day was begun by Dr. Venkat Narayan, a physician-scientist trained on three continents, who worked at the CDC, and is now an Emory professor of global health and epidemiology. He described Emory’s collaboration in research and training with partners in New Delhi, Chennai and Karachi. With most research being done in developed countries, but most need in developing countries, opportunities for coordination abound, and building relations is critical. Challenges involve training ( India being weaker), bureaucracy (on both sides), goals for funding (social diseases such as diabetes vs. infectious disease) , and differences in research and business cultures, worries, and attitudes—which will be solved through conversation and cultivation of a culture that makes it work.

Dr. Bhagirath Majmudar followed, presented as the winner of the highest teaching award at Emory’s School of Medicine, who amazingly finds time to be a Hindu priest and write plays and award-winning poetry. He described his travels in India, visiting hospitals and finding that despite economic advances, physical health was still suffering from poor hygiene, lack of sanitation even in hospitals, air pollution, crowded conditions, homelessness, stray animals and dirty streets. Mental problems are still stigmatized, and the aged feel a lack of attention and respect. Knowledge of spiritual life is fading, while gathering a stronger hold on Westerners. He offered numerous recommendations for medical education, access to healthcare, allocation of resources, etc.

● The next panel brought together a wonderful group of career diplomats, experts on South Asia: Ambassador Marion Creekmore was program director at the Carter Center and vice provost for international affairs at Emory; Dr. Stephen P. Cohen is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; and Ambassador Howard Schaffer of Georgetown University and Ambassador Teresita Schaffer each spent over 30 years in the US Foreign Service.

Ambassador “Howie” Schaffer detailed India’s regional challenges, more complicated than in the Cold War. While India is willing to live with Pakistan, Pakistan sees India as a threat. Manmohan Singh, born in a part of India that is now in Pakistan, is trying to leave a good legacy for the region, but another terrorist attack could threaten. Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan is an issue. Some outreach to the Taliban is probably inevitable, and better transport and economic ties to the North are desired. Chinese expansion is a concern: a railroad from Tibet, a seaport in Sri Lanka. Relations with Bangladesh are typically poor: an agreement last year on “interconnectivity,” with access from NE India to the sea through Bangladesh rather than around to Calcutta, is hugely beneficial but slow in coming. Such efforts bolster India’s image as a global power and lessen the image of a bully. “ India lives in a dangerous neighborhood” and needs to respond flexibly.

Ambassador “Tasie” Schaffer explained the major changes of the last 20 years. India is now a global player, whose economy has become a principal driver for its foreign policy. Trade has increased dramatically to over 40% of its GDP, so it is no longer a question of getting aid. Oil is the largest import (1/3), and refined petroleum products are the largest export, so relations with Persian Gulf countries are vital. Here and in East Asia, the interests of India and the US have begun to converge. India and the US share interest in Iran not having nuclear weapons, but have very different ideas of how to go about it. In Africa and Latin America, India is beginning to be active: in Africa, the US and India have agreed on cooperative ventures on the borderline between aid-giving and commercial development. In the multilateral world of the UN and the WTO, the differences between the US and nonaligned India are beginning to change: with recent harmonious participation in the G-20, the new organization for global financial management; US will support India’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council—“ India needs to be inside the tent.” To realize the potential, both the US and India need to redefine relationships.

● Geoffrey Pyatt, a “rising star” in the senior US Foreign Service, spoke on Indo-US cooperation. He called Obama’s visit to India one of the most successful visits to South Asia ever, and called defense cooperation a cornerstone. India exercises more with the US military than with any other country, which reinforces high esteem and habits of cooperation. India’s C-130 planes are built in Marietta, and Wipro is a major player in the US. Opportunities abound in railroads, airports, fiberoptic networks and more: 80% of India’s infrastructure of 2030 is yet to be built. Its GDP is 10 times that of 20 years ago and is the 2 nd fastest growing. However, South Asia is one of the least economically integrated areas in the world; trade associations can play a significant role to improve trade relations. Recently an exhibition of Pakistani goods was held in India and a made-in-India exhibition will soon go to Pakistan. Although change in India is slow, it is important to remember that “ India is a real democracy where everything has to be debated, sometimes debated to death, whereas China is not.” So “be patient with those ups and downs” of Indian democracy “because the overall trajectory is unambiguously upward.”

● Why do we choose to attend such meetings rather than simply read books and articles? An experience of a good meeting such as this will tell you: even a topic not in one’s usual realm will spring to life as experts share not only their knowledge, but their enthusiasm, worries and aspirations. As in a concert, where seeing the instruments being played brings a greater depth of understanding of the music and appreciation of the musicians, so in such a summit, seeing and hearing the participants express themselves can both bring the topics to life and give us insights on the problems, the players, the process, and the possibilities. Sparks of ideas and understandings fly as we meet speakers and participants coming from a multitude of angles.

Not the least of the pleasures of attending this meeting was discovering the human sides of some of the dignitaries. In one of the three summit videos on YouTube, you can see Ambassador Shankar joking about visiting Germany and discovering her lack of preparation in one area: Bollywood dancing! Speaking of the films, the Ambassador’s combination of dignity, humor, and utmost care may remind film buffs of Audrey Hepburn, who traveled the world as Goodwill Ambassador for the UNICEF after her film career … and certainly the fiery crackle of perception and wit and sharpness of intellect of the two former US Ambassadors Schaffer were too perfect a match not to mention, for a film by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy!

Such meetings provide comfort that we have had some worthy protagonists on the world stage, and, more importantly, inspiration to participate for the emergence of continually improving scenarios.

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