Held across two days, and jointly hosted by the students of the Kennedy School and the Business School, India Conference saw the participation from 800 guests and over 100 speakers.
At a time when India is facing many burning questions on its social and economic future, leading experts from business, politics, media and social sectors from India gathered along with the students, faculty and professionals of the South Asia Community to discuss India’s next decade, at the Harvard India Conference 2020 in Boston.
Hosted jointly by Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, India Conference has now become a long-standing and prestigious event, and it is the largest India-focused event that is hosted in the U.S. Every year, the Conference sees participation from notable experts—representing a range of sectors and expertise in India—who fly down to make the two-day event a platform for candid and thoughtful debate, and this year was no different. Keynote speakers for the event included ex-Indian cricket coach Gary Kirsten, prominent Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, Member of Parliament Jayant Sinha, economist Arvind Subramaniam and prominent standup comic Vir Das, among others.
Day 1 of the two-day conference was hosted at Harvard Kennedy School, and began with keynote speeches from the likes of Kalyan Krishnamurthy, CEO of Flipkart, who spoke about building the next phase of e-commerce in India, especially mentioning premiumization and new category development as growth drivers for consumer spend. Mahua Moitra, member of the Indian Parliament and Trinamool Congress, candidly spoke of the eroding social fabric in India and argued for dissent to be a fundamental right granted to citizens. The keynote event, where the audience also heard perspectives from P. Sivakami and Siddharth Vaarajan, gave a lens into the economic, social, political and reformist view in India, and it was a great start to the Conference as it brought together the pivotal conversations on how India would enter the 2020s in a way that leaves no one behind.
Soon after, Varun Gandhi, member of the Indian Parliament and the ruling political party BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), spoke of his journey in politics and building mass movements for social causes. In a panel focused on the Women of India, Ruma Devi, President of the Gramin Vikas Evam Chetna Sansthan, spoke about her personal journey of breaking gender stereotypes and building social enterprise. Another panel focused on environmental justice saw social environmentalists and representatives of the tribal community bring attention to the growing need for ground-level support for environmental movements. Other panels included a heated debate on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill and National Register of Citizens (NRC), the role of caste in Indian politics, the power of Bollywood and its influence on society and the challenges of being Muslim in contemporary India. Day 1 was brought to a close by Vir Das, who had the audience in peals of laughter as he commented on Indian culture, politics and stereotypes.
Day 2 of the India Conference began at Harvard Business School, with the keynote event focused on the future of the Indian economy, where Jayant Sinha’s passionate defense of the government’s policies was challenged passionately by prominent development economist Bina Agarwal. Newsman Rahul Kanwal of India Today spoke of the changing style of the Indian media and the influence of “fake news” on journalism. Amit Midha of Dell Technologies and Mukesh Aghi, President of the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, along with other panelists, argued for building smart cities in India, saying the India would need a new city that was the same size as Chicago every year for the next 10 years.
Leading technology entrepreneur, Ritesh Agarwal of OYO Rooms, shared his journey from being a 19-year-old college dropout to a unicorn founder and spoke about the importance of taking risks and building good teams. Other panels included conversations around Indian healthcare, role of technology in consumer businesses and education, India’s role in leading the fight on climate change, and investing in India (an analysis of investor expectations vs returns). Jayant Sinha outlined his view on building businesses on the “green frontier” to bring jobs to India’s demographic in an environmentally sustainable manner. Gary Kirsten had the audience reliving the Indian cricket team’s victory in the 2011 World Cup. He spoke of mental strength and leadership skills of India’s leading sportsmen, and how leadership lessons from sports can be applied to business. The Conference came to close with Anupam Kher’s emotional and inspiring recollection of his childhood days and the lessons he learnt from failures.
The India Conference provided an opportunity to showcase the country’s talent, creativity and resources on a world stage, and it was a forum to learn about the changing business, political and social landscape in India. As the curtains came down on the 17th edition of the conference, it delivered once again on the promise of diversity of thought and passionate debate, where the audience listened to and interacted enthusiastically with India’s thought leaders.
Radhica Kaushal (MBA ’21) was an organizer of the India Conference 2020. Prior to HBS, Radhica was a private equity professional in India.