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India Unbound: A Perspective

After the extensive coverage of South-East Asia in the previous edition of The Harbus, I figured I’d push my luck with yet another article on India. Not quite a conference coverage article, not exactly reminiscences about a trek, but probably somewhere in between.

(With due apologies to Gurcharan Das, author of “India Unbound”, a book with quite an intense perspective on India’s Nehruvian Socialistic past, and its future in the globalizing world.)

This train of thought started in the course of my one-month trip to India this winter, replete with friends, family and a bit of work, and was fuelled while attending a diverse set of panels at the recently concluded HBS India Conference. In contending with the question of when to return home to India, and what nature of opportunity to exploit there, the last couple of months have provided quite a few interesting perspectives.

In more recent memory, an interesting observation by the India Conference VC/PE Panel was the difference between product innovation, the more classical western view of creativity, versus go-to-market or business model innovation, which seemed to abound in India. One instance of this is the outsourcing and service delivery model that has traditionally been followed by IT services, but that has now transcended to auto ancillaries and pharmaceuticals. Medical tourism is another instance, with an increasing number of non-complicated elective surgeries being performed in centers such as Apollo and Wockhardt. With U.S. entrepreneurs quickly aligning with these care providers to create the service delivery model, this fledgling industry seems to be positioning itself to compete with established multi-specialty clinics in USA.

Another case in point that also came up for discussion in the VC/PE panel is the mobile services market, where service providers are building for capacity instead of coverage, and the overall cost dynamic of the industry is unlike any other seen in any OECD nation.

A number of speakers spoke about the growing consumer driven nature of the Indian economy, with consumption comprising over 60% of GDP. However, panelists also said that the current income mobility and its differential rates across sectors and socio-economic strata had varied implications for consumption, and consequent on the economics of businesses moving to fulfill that need.

While these views have stimulated my imagination about the possibilities that lie in India, I was sobered by the discussion on the lack of “hard” infrastructure, still-developing IP laws, and the “hyperactive” capital markets in India. That the infrastructure sector sorely lacks investment was underscored by my recent visit back home, where I saw for myself the dismal state of roads in a major city such as Mumbai. Neither Kolkata nor Bangalore fare much better, and local growth has consistently outstripped the rate of development, especially in recent years.

However, in spite of a couple of three-hour traffic jams, I did unabashedly delight in the inventiveness of the Indian mind. On a trip to Pune, approximately three hours west of Mumbai, I was stuck with a gas cylinder that had a cap that refused to come off, a regulator that did not couple to a tube, and only a few hours at hand before I had to assemble this equipment before an audience of surgeons (how that came to be is a long tale). My unlikely hero was Sharif, the driver of the car I’d hired, who put his mechanical skills to good use and figured out how to get things working. It is this ingenuity and can-do attitude that draws me time and again.

What amazes me the most is the oneness of identity that India has found; a nation that started as a geographic entity (mountains on the north and east, desert on the west, and water everywhere else), integrated as an administrative entity, united as a democratic entity, languished as a socialist entity, but then suddenly flourished as a liberalized entity. With eighteen major languages and over 300 dialects, it is quite remarkable that we even understand each other. The paradoxical nature of this country has an addicting influence on both those who call it home, as well as those who come over to vacation.

Oh, and the questions that I have been posing for myself? In all likelihood, they will remain unanswered, to be uncovered only by the process of discovery, and not deductive logic. Till then, I hope to enjoy the journey, and wait for the destination to sort itself out.

February 12, 2007
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