World Economic Forum – India derailed.

Such is the faith of people in India that problems, challenges, opportunities, and any successes are often attributed to a divine force – the almighty. I remember a raging argument with my mother when I was a child, in which she basically justified her in-action by citing the same – “if it’s meant to be…”, which I’ve always seen as a cop-out as she avoided taking responsibility for an action.

Well, the reason I mention this is that having participated in the World Economic Forum’s India Summit in Mumbai earlier this week, India’s political & business leadership reminded me of the raging argument between my mother and me. Just that in this case, India’s much celebrated captains of industry became my mum for two days.

The problem is that everyone now recognises that the challenges India faces are possibly too big to overcome. The shine has truly come off. The penny’s dropped and they don’t know what to do. So they’re happy just to bumble on and see what happens (if it’s meant to be…)

Such was the elation of the mid 2000’s, that she was pleased to have been invited to the G20, and other international platforms, it seems that they’ve forgotten that if they desire global recognition, they need to offer solutions that fix problems.

Take, for example, the construction industry which itself will see an investment of a trillion dollars over the next ten years, but where are the skilled tradesman? In a similar fashion, take any profession and you arrive at the same problem.

India’s much talked of demographic dividend stands to turn into the exact opposite if practical solutions are not found. It’s far too easy to say that the private sector needs to play a role by harnessing the opportunity. India’s government needs to follow through by creating a favourable policy environment, else… the risks to her growth are simply too significant to consider.

I’m quite a positive guy, but this Summit knocked the stuffing out of me.

Corruption, a bloated bureaucracy, a ego, all stand in the path of progress. That’s what the India Summit confirmed in my mind.

There’s cows on the roads!

Ever since my kids were born, I’ve wanted to take them to India – the land of my ancestors. Partly, as I wanted them to connect at an early age with their heritage, and partly as I think they’ll be better equipped for the future if they start understanding the nuances of India – a country that everyone’s accepted as being central to global prosperity in the future.

In their lifetimes, they’ll see massive change. The centre of gravity will shift from Europe & North America to India & China. Given their obvious link to one of these future superpowers, our purpose was to introduce them to the sights, smells, and joys of our motherland.

So, we took them to Mumbai – home to the Indian film industry, commercial capital of India, and a bustling metropolis that is, arguably, the most outward looking of all Indian cities where their eyes came alight with – not the razzle dazzle of neon lights – but by seeing cows, goats, and pigs sharing the roads with the human race and by witnessing the sheer number of people on the streets of Mumbai.

Although I say it in light jest, it’s an important lesson that they realize that a civilization as ancient as it is, respects & shares with others, and that the concept of private space is (a luxury, and) perhaps, unique to the western hemisphere.

Along with the (rather, costly) saree shopping we had to endure on this visit; on New Years Day, we took the opportunity to visit a community school run by a NGO called Pratham in a Mumbai slum. I’d heard and read a lot about their stellar work, but visiting projects such as the ones we did reminded us that India may be a wonderfully colourful, vibrant, and hip place to be but there’s absolutely no escaping the fact that India is still home to a third of the world’s poor.

Cars, scooters, and rickshaws not only share roads with cows and other animals, you also visibly see the increasingly affluent sharing their immediate vicinity with some of the poorest people on the face of our planet.

My kids visited a crammer class of 20 students aged 7, who all sat cross-legged on the floor in a one room building with a teacher who used a blackboard to coach them on how they could attain a 80% pass rate for an exam, which if they did would provide them with 750 rupee (just over £10) scholarship to study further.

We worked our way through the slum – with open sewers, noisy workshops, and a dhobi ghat, to visit a room that also doubled up as a community library, which had fewer books than, not our local school library, but the books on the shelves in my children’s bedrooms! It may have been woefully inadequately resourced, but what came through was the immense pleasure of the children’s faces from being able to read the few books that they had at their disposal. With every page they turned, you could see their minds working overtime to grasp and understand what the author intended.

Lastly, we visited another home, where 20 children aged 2 – 6, who had never gone to school, were able to say the days of the week, read an early stage book, and respond in English to us.

All of this served to bring to the fore not only that we’re materially better off and have comforts that so many don’t, but the fact that there’s an entire generation that’s young and hungry to succeed. They’re going to take every opportunity that comes their way to improve their lives.

Economic forecasts show that as a result of various factors, primarily due its very young population, almost 25% of the world’s workforce will reside in India, not in 50 years, but in the next 15 years – in our lifetimes!

The basic message that we want our kids to recognise is that they have an inbuilt advantage, which they would be wise to embrace given the strides that India’s going to be making. Their economic well being in London, will in some shape or form, be dependent on how they understand and interact with India.

As parents, my wife & I committed to doing everything at our means to ensure our children run faster than we did, have larger dreams that we had, and in all are able to stand strong, not on their own, but realizing they belong to an increasingly interdependent and connected ecosystem – on in which they understand that their actions can have a major impact on someone else’s prosperity and vice-versa.

Whilst, I’ve focused on the material benefits of a relationship with the Indian subcontinent in this post, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that that’s all India offers for the future. It was Mark Twain who aptly described India as “India is, the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only”, meaning that her ancient traditions, religious practices, philosophical outlook could perhaps address and teach us how to be better people and, just perhaps, answer the mother of all our questions – “what is the meaning of life”.

My daughters are way too young to grasp such issues, but, I hope that as a result of the connection they made in their 2010 Christmas break, they’re able to run that little bit further, climb a bit higher, and dream a bigger dream.

Mumbai, still fresh in our hearts

It seems just yesterday when the horrific attacks in Mumbai were beamed into our homes, for that reason to find that we’re a year on comes as a major wake-up call.

In London, just like last year, a number of candle vigils have taken place and more are planned tomorrow, which isn’t really suprising due to the presence of a large diaspora community – who have families and friends in India. Just today, I was reminded that a few people from the UK were actually trapped in the Taj & Oberoi hotels, all which reinforces the global relevance of such mind-numbing acts of violence and insanity.

In preparation for a TV interview, I uncovered the following nuggets, which I thought would be of interest:

  • That the Indian Government has boosted expenditure on national security by 50%. Establishing a new National Investigation Agency to focus on the terrorism threat and increasing Mumbai’s police force by 1,000 to 43,000.
  • The Mumbai attacks also underscored the need for India’s intelligence agencies to work more effectively with foreign counterparts. This was highlighted on Manmohan Singh’s recently concluded US state visit, where Obama announced closer cooperation on counter-terrorism.

Contrary to popular perception, Mumbai’s muslims refused burial rights to the terrorists who were shot, and by doing so sending a clear signal that terrorism has no religion and that this so called, global jihad is nothing but a line spun once too often and thus giving credibility to those who’ve been lobbing grenades across the line of control and showering Indian soldiers with bullets since the mid-90s.

I pay my respects and offer my solidarity to India.

The woes of Air India

Reading that Praful Patel, Indian Minister for Civil Aviation, is visiting Manmohan Singh with a range of ideas that could turnaround India’s state airline, I am reminded of my few unique experiences on Air India which, no matter what Mr Patel proposes, will undoubtedly remain etched in my memory.

Having experienced great luxury travel with the likes of Jet and Virgin, especially of the sumptuous Virgin lounge in Heathrow, it remains a constant surprise that Air India’s lounge is just so, so shabby. To the point that the furniture has ciggy holes in it and everything looks greasy – including the samosas! Let’s not even mention the unbearable stained carpets, the over-weight and heavy handed flight attendants, or the sub-standard on-flight entertainment.

I agree with Praful Patel on the count that the issues with Air India are deeply systemic and go to the core. If they can’t get customer service right, then why expect a higher demand on their flights?

Not so long ago, a friend of mine – during a conversation of the excellent service I had received with Jet, quipped amusingly that she always flew business class in Air India to Mumbai, for the simple reason that “who else would let you put your kids down to sleep on the floor in front of your seat”.!!!!

What a great USP.

What's going to happen to the India – Pakistan relationship?

More than any other question I have been asked, the central issue that everyone needs to be concerned about is that of the future of the India – Pakistan relationship.

If the mood of the people in Mumbai – those most affected – is anything to go by, we should expect a huge contingent of soldiers to make their way towards the border and eyeball their Pakistani counterparts whilst the international community goes into overdrive to avoid nuclear meltdown. However, the situation today is different to the last time – when the Indian Parliament was attacked.

Different for the following reasons:

1. The Pakistani Government has been quick off the mark to say the right things that may buy them some time. Last time, they also denied their involvement, but they didn’t give the same sense of urgency and importance as they have this time.

2. They fear the consequences of doing nothing. President Elect Obama has already indicated that he wouldn’t have any problems in standing over Pakistant to make sure it delivers on its promise to clamp down on terrorism. He may have made those comments in the context of Afghanistan, but these comments will also apply to these outrageous incidents.

3. India has succesfully managed to shed the much ingrained view that the fortunes of two were linked – the manifestation of this is that now we hardly hear about ‘India – Pakistan’ in one breath, but instead hear about ‘Ch-India’ or ‘India – China’. The successes of India Inc and the huge bank of goodwill that the country has developed is paying huge dividends today. India’s economic might overpowers that of Pakistan by a factor of mllions today and simply put, it is this realisation that strikes fear at the centre of Pakistani decision making.

For these reasons, I believe we will witness a much required and massive rebalancing of power and influence in the region. If there’s one good thing that these attrocities will have done, then this is it.

Is this India's 9/11?

Was invited onto BBC World News and News 24 yesterday & today to help make sense of what’s happening in Mumbai. In response to a question whether Pakistan could be behind this attrocity, I was left with no choice to point out that it wouldn’t be the first time that the left hand fails to speak to the right – in recent history, we know of situations when the Pakistani administration were simply not told what its security and intelligence services were upto.

If Bush can brand Pakistan as being the epicentre of the axis of evil, if Obama during his election campaign can say that he wouldn’t have any issues with launching strikes on Pakistani soil, then the world shouldn’t break ranks with India if it were to exercise its right to protect its citizens. Yesterday, I argued that Pakistani stability was in India’s interest. Today, I go further – Pakistani stability is in the entire international community’s interest.

This could well be India’s 9/11. Let’s hope the world stands with India rather than obstruct its path in helping Pakistan come to grips with the challenges it has domestically.