MENLO PARK, Calif. — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious “Digital India” initiative is poised to change the lives of 1.3 billion people, said John Chambers, chairman of the U.S. India Business Council, at the organization’s first West Coast Summit here April 21.
“The opportunity is enormous,” said Chambers, the former CEO of Cisco who continues to serve as the company’s executive chairman. “Business and government working together can dramatically change economic growth,” he said. “We will see more impact over the next five years than we have seen in the past 40.”
Chambers has met with Modi twice, and characterized him as “one of the top five leaders I have ever met. He has the ability to inspire a nation with leadership and trust.”
Chambers – who helmed Cisco for over 20 years – predicted that India could become “the model nation for the rest of the world, not just the developing world,” with inclusion of all its citizens in the villages and cities. “The window to India will only be open for a couple of years. If you’re not here, you won’t just miss the bus, you’ll be left behind,” he emphasized.
USIBC president Mukesh Aghi kicked off the summit, noting that India’s economy is expected to grow by eight percent this year and that inflation is expected to drop by 5 percent. Foreign direct investment in India has grown by 14 percent, while dropping globally by 16 percent.
Aghi – formerly the chief executive at L&T Infotech – said USIBC’s partner members invested $15 billion in India last year, and are looking to expand to $27 billion this year. “India’s policies must be streamlined so that we have a better return on investment,” the Indian American executive said.
Aghi lauded the new budget released in February as one of “the best budgets the government has ever put together.”
“India is an oasis in the midst of very barren economic growth worldwide,” Amitabh Kant, CEO of the National Institution for Transforming India Aayog (Commission), told the crowd of investors and business leaders in his keynote address. Kant said the challenge for the nation was to get to a 10 percent economic growth rate over the next three decades and create jobs for the 65 percent of its population under the age of 35.
“India had made itself a very difficult place to do business. But the prime minister has changed all of that,” noted Kant, who branded the “Incredible India” campaign and earlier developed the “God’s Own Country” campaign for Kerala. Kant noted that Modi has dismantled 1,073 acts related to business endeavors, and has mandated that no form should be more than one page long. “He is challenging the bureaucracy so that people can create wealth here.”
Asked about India’s current ranking at 147 on the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” index, Kant said he expected to see a huge jump by at least 30 spaces this year and predicted that over the next decade, India would list among the top 30 nations for ease of business transactions. He noted that India’s foreign direct investment has grown by over 48 percent.
By 2024, every Indian will be equipped with a smart phone and access to the Internet, radically transforming India’s business climate, asserted Kant. Massive urbanization – with more than 700 million villagers moving to “smart cities” — will also dramatically alter India’s landscape, he said.
Asked by India-West if Indian cities could support a mass migration, given the present conditions of insufficient housing, inconsistent water and power supplies, and a myriad of other issues, Kant noted that Indian urbanization should not attempt to replicate the American landscape, with its sprawling suburbs. Indian cities must be much more condensed, he said, with sustainable urbanizing, including the recycling of water and waste.
“We must move from caste and class to roads and infrastructure,” said Kant.
Former Ambassador Nicholas Burns, who served in the U.S. Foreign Service for 27 years until his retirement in 2007, joined Venkatesan Ashok, India’s Consul General in San Francisco, for a panel discussion entitled, “The U.S.-India Partnership – Priorities for the Next Administration.
Burns, currently a visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, laughingly revealed his candidate of choice, stating: “When she takes office, our next president is going to face a very difficult policy agenda.”
“India is not difficult. Both parties want to forward the U.S.-India relationship. They agree on nothing, but they are united on this,” he said, noting that Modi has also been very clear on strengthening the partnership between the two nations.
Trade, however, poses a challenge, said Burns, noting that India — which has traditionally been very protectionist — is not a partner in the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement between 12 Pacific Rim countries and the U.S. The diplomat said India must conform its trade practices to be open to trade.
Ashok noted the two countries needed to change the strategic content of the relationship. Strategies to counter global terrorism must be an area of cooperation, he said.
The two nations must also partner in creating educational opportunities, said Ashok. “India needs a huge amount of innovation. This can only happen by looking at models like Stanford, to make India an innovation power,” said the consul general.
Burns noted that India will be the world’s largest economy by 2050.
The afternoon summit also featured a panel discussion entitled, “Delivering on Digital India and the Role of Innovative Technology.” Chambers also held a “fireside chat” with Kant, in which the Indian CEO noted that women must increase their role in the GDP, growing to 40 percent from their current rate of 17 percent.