India Reality 2017
By Peter Nicholls from Perth USAsia Centre | 10 Aug 2017
A month or so ago The Economist magazine had a front cover headline “Modi’s India – the Illusion of reform”. This is the same magazine that missed the rise of Trump/Sanders, Brexit and spent decades warning of the imminent slowing of growth in China. Had my favourite magazine got it wrong again on India? An esteemed Indian recently commented to me “China didn’t follow the western model of growth and even today people outside China don’t really understand how they did it, likewise if India does continue to grow, it won’t follow the western model and non-Indians won’t really get it until it’s happened”
So, here is an on the ground perspective – you be the judge of India’s prospects?
The day commences at 6am, my personal driver (who only 6 months ago got his first bank account, thanks to demonetisation) proceeds fast along Delhi’s streets, deserted at this hour except for the homeless by the roadside, intermingled with Delhi’s nouveau ‘middle classes’ on their morning exercise walk. The newish airport is busy at this peak time, but more spacious and comfortable than Perth airport. I am through in 18 minutes but my flight is delayed, “bugger”. I settle into my chair at the hipster airport café and reflect; this is the worst monsoon rain of the season and only a few flights delayed; in Sydney with a summer storm or NYC with a snowstorm; red delayed lights would dominate the departures screen.
My $100 flight on a new aircraft arrives in Chennai (Perth to Adelaide distance), the passenger next to me takes selfies throughout the flight, clearly his first time on a plane. My hotel is not like the tired Australian or US 5 stars, but typical of the plush South East Asian standard. I meet one of my fellow conference panellists, a special advisor to Modi on jobs, we quickly move the conversation from our designated topic “the Gig Economy” to India’s continental challenges. “..the what is very easy, take any issue Agriculture, Infrastructure, Manufacturing etc. and the paper from 1960 or 1980 and its recommendations are correct even today….The challenge is the how which is an Indian political economy question”
The 500 strong audience of business professionals is treated to an Indian summit running on time and dynamically presented, it includes case studies of:
- An Indian AI Bot, which uses conversation and body language recognition to predict employee attrition (employees are more honest with Bots than HR);
- A Cirque De Soleil clown used by India’s elite engineering school (IIT - top 10 in the world) to teach final year students emotion & creativity, so their brains are balanced upon graduation.
- A retired Indian army elite forces General providing exquisite business insights on the relevance of empowerment of teams for adaptive capability in today’s complex world.
In the evening, I attempt to order a drink at the hotel bar, but they are not serving alcohol. The Indian Supreme Court, to enhance road safety, has banned the sale of all alcohol within 500m of a national highway. This impractical aloof decree has recently shutdown many of the bars and restaurants in the hotels in large cities. However some ingenious Indians hoteliers have devised elaborate 500m long exits through their underground car parks to get around the decree. My business acquaintance and I carry on the conversation, he is an ex silicon valley Indian, who returned home 10 years ago, pioneered BPOs and is now focused on building schools and transforming education. He proudly shows me a recent picture of himself with his batch mate Sundar Pichai (Google CEO) at one of his schools. My acquaintance then laments…”India has a world class education for the lucky few, which is why me and Sundar make it in Silicon Valley, but for the masses, why would a politician invest in education, it’s a 15 year payoff (3 elections).” I probe “…but for India today you have returned and are trying to fix it, the generation before you left and never returned.”
The next morning, early smooth flight home, the newspapers feature the election Ram Nath Kovind, who is the first elected Dalit (untouchable), and the first member of the BJP (Modi’s party) to be elected President of India (like a governor-general). As I exit the airport, I grab a clean air conditioned cab, no waiting (again…better than Perth airport). But the traffic is almost at a standstill, delayed for one hour plus by the extension to Delhi’s new air conditioned metro (more comfortable than London’s tube). Back to the newspaper, the Indian commentariat seem to be very concerned about potential partisan conflicts of interest for the ceremonial Presidential role.
I reflect on the last 24 hours and muse, India is a place of contradictions, changing and not stagnant, there is an old saying incumbents (like the Economist) are at their most redundant just before major change occurs.
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