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United Nations Undersecretary General and keynote speaker Shashi Tharoor discussed India's present in terms of its history at the March 3 India Business Conference.

Anticipating India

Nation’s rapid economic growth suggests ‘unlimited potential,’ say experts at India Business Conference

By Aubrey Henretty

3/6/2007 - By serendipity or cosmic design, the Kellogg School’s India Business Conference coincided with Holi, the Hindu Festival of Colors, on March 3. Kellogg Dean Dipak C. Jain welcomed attendees with a remark on the appropriateness of the arrangement.

“You cannot pick a better day than this, the beginning of a new season,” he said, to discuss India’s “Unlimited Potential” — this year’s conference theme. However, he added, the distinguished business leaders, diplomats and academics had not gathered at the James L. Allen Center to predict the future.

“Anything you predict is going to turn out to be wrong, anyway,” said the dean. “More than prediction, we need to think in terms of anticipation.”

Promising economic numbers are among the data shaping such anticipation. Organizers of the student-run conference accented India’s spectacular commercial growth, currently expanding at more than 8 percent each year. (The Economist recently suggested this figure could surge into double digits in 2007, although researchers questioned the sustainability of such growth as the government tries to avoid inflationary pressures.) Such development has enormous future implications for domestic and multinational companies.

Still, morning keynote speaker Shashi Tharoor, the United Nations’ undersecretary general for communications and public information, encouraged the sold-out crowd to approach the day with a historical perspective.

“The 60th anniversary of India’s independence is as much a time for looking back as looking forward,” said Tharoor, who was India’s official candidate to succeed U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan (and who ranked second of the seven nominees). Citing among other things the tens of thousands of dialects spoken in India and the strange fact that some villages have access to American soft drinks but not to clean drinking water, Tharoor described the nation as “much more than the sum of its contradictions” — a land well adapted to pluralism.

Tharoor also discussed the ways in which Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent leadership, India’s free press and thriving mass media, and its entertainment industry are building the nation domestically and abroad, but did not shy away from addressing India’s severely uneven distribution of wealth.

As the nation continues to grow economically, he said, it must also work tirelessly to keep its people fed, safe and healthy: “An India that denies itself to some Indians would not be the India Mahatma Gandhi fought to free.”

Participants in the panel discussion, “Heathcare & Biotech — Watch India! The Next Healthcare & Biotech frontier,” echoed that sentiment.

“We think of India as this technologically advanced back office of the world,” said Joe Shrawder, the general manager of diagnostic imaging performing technologies at GE, but the reality on the ground is that most Indians’ basic healthcare needs aren’t being met. “It’s not advanced technology that’s needed. It’s the ability to serve tens of thousands of patients.”

MedSphere President Hooman Bahmandeji ’94 said the industry stands to benefit from a new generation of young, educated, middle-class Indians. “This bright talent base is dissatisfied doing outsource work,” he said, and “I think with dissatisfaction always comes change.”

He continued, “This is a very dynamic market. If you’re making decisions based on one assumption, it’s constantly changing, so it’s important to go back every few months and re-evaluate.” Despite the challenges the industry faces, Bahmandeji said the outlook is good: “We’re really in the infancy of what is happening in India, and I think the best is yet to come.”

Following the panel, McKinsey & Company Worldwide’s former managing director, Rajat Gupta, also addressed India’s healthcare quandary. “In a poor country like India, he said, “you cannot afford to have people fall ill and then try to cure them.” A viable Indian healthcare system, he said, must focus on promoting overall health and preventing disease in the population.

Throughout his keynote address, Gupta discussed India’s booming middle class and concurrent emergence of “homegrown giants” in business. As Indians join the consumer class by the tens of millions, he said, “India will shape global demand for goods and services.”

While essential for curing certain social ills and giving all Indian citizens a fighting chance to enjoy the nation’s burgeoning prosperity, Gupta said government programs can only do so much. The market, he added, will take care of the rest. “I don’t know a single nation that has come out of poverty without the creation of enterprise … The government really needs to understand what its role is: to create that even playing field.”

Indian Ambassador to the United States Ronen Sen, who delivered the conference’s final keynote address, said India’s government is still trying to catch up with its population.

“We are one of the world’s oldest civilizations, but we are a relatively young nation state,” said Sen, adding that the population itself is also quite young, with approximately one third under 25 years old. “Securing energy and energy security and the related problem of water scarcity are going to emerge — have already emerged — as the problems we should have taken care of the day before yesterday.”

“What India is really in the process of is shedding its colonial legacy,” he said.

The day’s events also included panel discussions, “Retail — Reaching One Billion Consumers” (moderated by Kellogg Senior Associate Dean, Curriculum and Teaching, Sunil Chopra), “Entrepreneurship & Venture Capital — The Next Big Idea” (moderated by Kellogg Professor Ranjay Gulati) and “Real Estate — Too Good to be True?” (moderated by Kellogg Senior Associate Dean, Faculty and Research, Kathleen Hagerty).

The daylong event concluded with a networking reception in the Allen Center.