India’s Biggest Challenge: Pursuing Reforms Needed to Sustain 8% Growth for Decades

With India expected to achieve 7.6% GDP growth this year and its global competitiveness rising, the country is at an inflection point, business, government and academic leaders told participants in the opening plenary of the World Economic Forum’s 32nd India Economic Summit. “The biggest challenge is to have sustainable growth of 8% for a couple of decades,” said Gita Gopinath, Professor of Economics at Harvard University. “Can India sustain this growth across political cycles?” To keep that pace of progress would entail further structural and institutional reforms, argued Gopinath, a Summit Co-Chair. “But if that is done, then it will be mind-blowing for India.”

“It is achievable,” declared Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of State for Commerce and Industry of India. “Across the states, we see that urge now – to see brighter days and to find the issues where we can come together, removing obstructions [to doing business] and moving forward on using technology.” John Rice, Vice-Chairman of GE in Hong Kong SAR and another Summit Co-Chair, agreed. “It is sustainable, but you have to think what is required for the 21st century and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. With the convergence of digital and industrial, a different set of skills is required to win,” he said. The Indian government has the responsibility to ensure that people receive the necessary training. Added Rice: “You have to make sure you are investing in the right things, including basic infrastructure. You can’t do it if you have 200 million people without electricity.”

The opportunities for India and its 1.3 billion people are “tremendous”, said fellow Summit Co-Chair Anil Agarwal, Executive Chairman of Vedanta Resources in the United Kingdom. “I have never felt this buzz about India in the last two decades.” The prospects for small and medium-sized enterprises are especially good, he noted. In particular, development of India’s natural resources would contribute significantly to eradicating poverty, Agarwal explained. India’s many entrepreneurs are focusing on the domestic market, observed Summit Co-Chair Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Paytm, an Indian e-commerce company based in Noida, an industrial development in the National Capital Region. “For the first time, Indians are very proud of producing for India. Indian entrepreneurs are now accepting that we should build something for India, working for technology that will serve Indians.”

The impact that Indian entrepreneurs have had on Silicon Valley is proof of India’s edge in technology and innovation. “I greatly believe in it,” said Amitabh Kant, Chief Executive Officer of NITI Aayog, or the National Institute for Transforming India, a government policy think-tank. “India is used to innovating. But India needs to innovate in urbanization, sewage and for clean water. It has to innovate for people.” India’s start-ups “will disrupt the world,” predicted Kant, also a Co-Chair of the Summit. “They will disrupt health, education. They will do a lot more social innovation.”

“The promise of India has always been there,” said Johan C. Aurik, Global Managing Partner and Chairman of the Board of global consulting group A.T. Kearney in the US and a Summit Co-Chair. He remarked that India has broken into the ranks of the top 10 destinations for foreign direct investment in the world. “The government has become the facilitator of change,” he said, applauding the “Make in India” initiative launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 to encourage foreign and domestic companies to manufacture products in the country and create millions of jobs. “The challenges will be daunting with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the tensions between jobs and digital developments,” Aurik reckoned. “But we have to make sure that progress is inclusive.”

In remarks earlier in the session, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, said that, to drive new economic growth, it is critical for his country and its neighbours to build partnerships not just within South Asia, but also across the world, particularly in South-East Asia, Japan, Korea and Europe. Asia has emerged as an economic growth engine of the world, he said. And, while the West may have written the rules of globalization so far, “Asia will bail out the world” and will move to create its own system. He told participants that he and Indian Prime Minister Modi aim to conclude the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) by the end of this year. Sri Lanka is also working with five southern Indian states on a sub-regional cooperative arrangement. “We have the potential to work together,” Wickremesinghe said. “Let’s have the whole area around the Bay of Bengal be a vibrant place of economic cooperation. The growth is here.” Colombo is also discussing a free-trade agreement with Singapore.

In a video message to welcome participants, Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, said that India has to continue its efforts to promote inclusion and master the challenges posed by the rapid technological changes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. “Inclusiveness in India and in the world will be one of the most decisive objectives the world community and Indian society have to achieve,” he said.

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