India Business Conference at Columbia University discuses ‘India: Unlocking the Growth Engine’

Hundreds of business enthusiasts, including several Indian titans and entrepreneurs attended the 14th annual India Business Conference on Saturday, April 7th, at Columbia University, a day-long conference presented by the South Asian Business Association (SABA), discussing, ‘India: Unlocking the Growth Engine.’  Prominent among those attended the event at the heart of the world were, the Consul General of India in New York, Sandeep Chakravorty, Hikmet Ersek, the President, CEO and Director of Western Union; Salman Khurshid, the former Minister of External Affairs and Subramanian Swamy, the former Minister of Law, Justice and Commerce.

The India Business Conference is the premier India-focused forum that inspires thought-leadership and generates discussions around the business, social, political, and creative undercurrents that permeate Indian life. The conference brought together the nation’s most influential and insightful voices in analyzing India’s growth trajectory, discuss its economic and socio-political  components and debate strategies for businesses to grow over the next decade.

Both Khurshid and Swamy spoke about the economic growth rate of India since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. “India is a remarkable destination for investment; India is on the move; India is an emerging economy and India has a bright future lying ahead,” Khurshid said in his opening remarks, talking about how the economy of India has grown in the areas of food, health, housing and education after the election of Modi as prime minister.

“The critical problem in our country was how we can integrate the rural economy with the urban economy. How do we change the terms of trade, how do we shift the industry to agriculture,” Khurshid asked the roomful of business enthusiasts, adding “we must not forget that India still has a huge number of people who live below the poverty line, who live without hope and aspiration to become a part of this ‘New India,’ the India of Narendra Modi.”

He also touched upon the fact that people in India have a mobile phone but don’t have the capacity to pay a doctor, send their children to school or even travel five to 10 kilometers. Khurshid concluded his remarks by stating that India is in a crisis due to the many social norms that the population of the country disagrees on and so now “we have to have faith in democracy. In democracy, you have to understand that the dialogue and conversations in a democracy are very critical. You cannot have a democracy based only on numbers; a democracy has to be based on communication. The trouble in India today is that we have forgotten that communication is an integral part of democracy and we have restricted ourselves to numbers only.”

 Swamy focused his remarks on the development of India’s economy since May 26, 2014, the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, but touched upon issues like demonetization and GST. “First of all I would like to say that the BJP came to power after 33 years in full majority and it is not based only on the economic performance that we promised but we also made an appeal for the unity of nationalistic forces, which our critics define as ‘Hindutva,’ so that we can fight corruption,” Swamy said.

“It is our view, mine in particular, that past history shows that pure economic performance does not guarantee the ladder to success. In a brief period of two-and-a-half years, Morarji Desai produced one of the best economic situations particularly for the people because it controlled prices to such an extent that human ration cards became unfashionable. But he lost the election. Narsimha Rao produced a miracle of sorts; he abolished the soviet economic system and brought in a market economy. But he too lost,” Swamy added.

Swamy informed all the attendees that “during the last four-and-a-half years there has been an acceleration of growth of GDP” in India and that prior to 2014, those growth rates were decelerating.

It was within the first two years after the 2014 election that the growth rates started to increase again. However, they have been decreasing since the 2016-2017 financial year and have come down to six percent a year which is not enough because India needs to have at least a 10 percent growth rate each year for the next 10 years in order to solve the problems of unemployment and inequality, he said.

Along with mentioning the fact that the rate of domestic sales has declined in the past four years because of high interest rates and the labor laws need to be changed, Swamy announced that the idea of demonetization was his when he was the chairman of strategic action under Prime Minister Modi. Swamy concluded his remarks on a hopeful note about how the youngsters of India are the future of the country and will take India to a higher level.

In a fireside chat with Ersek and Columbia University professor Stephen P. Zeldes, Ersek said that Western Union has licenses to operate in over 200 countries and with 50 million customers, they are able to transfer a total of $150 billion worldwide each year with 31 transactions taking place every second. Ersek also talked about trust and how that has been the company’s strength for all these years when transferring money to India and other countries.

“More than 50 percent of the people who receive money through Western Union are female, mainly mothers who are worried about their children’s future and thus tend to spend their money more wisely than males,” Ersek said.

Now in the growing age of digitization, many are relying on sending and receiving money on their mobile devices through the Western Union app and Ersek reassured an audience member that there is no need to worry about crypto currencies because for Western Union it depends on the environment as “it occurs in closed environments” and Western Union customers are in a more open one, especially in India.

Others who spoke at the conference included: Francisco D’Souza, the CEO of Cognizant; Anjali Bansal, the former MD of TPG Private Equity; Gaurav Dalmia, the Chairman of Dalmia Group Holdings; Sheena Iyengar, a S.T. Lee Professor of Business; Ananth Narayanan, the CEO Myntra & Jabong; Shankar Narayanan, the former MD of Carlyle Group; Ashwini Tewari, the Country Head of the U.S. Operations at State Bank of India; Meera Vasudevan, Co-founder of Tasty Bite Eatables; Arvind Panagariya, the Ex Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog; Sanjay Nath, the Co-founder & Managing Partner of Blume Ventures; Deepak Ohri, the CEO of Lebua Hotels and Resorts; Kshitij Bhati, the former Warburg Pincus; and, Musthafa PC, the CEO & Co-founder of iD Fresh Food (India) Pvt. Ltd.

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