India The Road Ahead

Date:   Tuesday , December 01, 2009

The emergence of India as an economic and technological powerhouse may be the most surprising, most compelling, most inspiring story of the last thirty years. The road that India has taken was not always easy, nor was it always clear. Neither is the path ahead, but with a vision for the future, the discipline to persevere, and a commitment to work together as a nation to achieve our goals, anything is possible.

The Human Continuum

Predicting the future is difficult. No crystal ball, tea leaves or Nostradamus-like mysticism will enable anything but the murkiest of insights into what the future holds in store. However, to identify the singular force that will carry India forward is simple: all one needs to do is look to the past to realize that India’s greatest potential lies in its people.

They are the inspirational leaders that led India out of the colonial period and into independence. They are the politicians that laid the foundation for India’s economic revolution. They are the entrepreneurs that revolutionized the IT industry and brought about India’s rise to global prominence. It is this human element, this continuum of energy, vitality and innovation that will propel India into the 21st century and beyond.

And, while the majority of the world is aging, India’s population is becoming more youthful. This is an advantage that is impossible to overstate.

The IT and BPO industry were the first to harness the potential of India’s people on a large scale, but every day, more and more business leaders are waking up to this reality. India’s multi-cultural nature makes it especially amenable to globalization due to a unique ability to understand and assimilate diverse cultures. Now, new industries including retail, travel and hospitality are beginning to find ways to harness India’s unique supply of talented professionals in a variety of different disciplines.

India’s population advantages have long made it an attractive location for “taking the work to the people,” but we are now in the midst of a paradigm shift. India’s burgeoning middle class is a large and attractive market for global companies, which are now beating a path to our door as they seek to expand into untapped territories.

Reversing the Brain Drain

The rise of India’s middle class is no accident. For decades, the Indian education system has created a formidable workforce of highly-trained engineering and technology professionals.

Global brands like GE, IBM, Intel, SAP and Oracle have all discovered the capabilities of Indian engineers, and have set-up research and development centers here to develop the next generation of their products for the global marketplace. These multi-national R&D establishments utilize the same people, technology and infrastructure assets as the IT and BPO services industry, yet the finished products do not “belong” to India.

The next logical step in the evolution of India-based R&D is to utilize this collective brain power to foster the creation of intellectual property by Indians for Indian companies.

However, this will require a more fundamental shift in our education system to move from “learning” to a “thinking” based knowledge assimilation. The focus of our schools and universities should be to train students to “innovate” rather than simply “replicate.”

There are many examples of India’s ability to innovate, especially when dealing with resource constraints. The Tata Nano is a prime example, born out of the necessity to conserve raw materials and serve a different class of consumer.

Given the current global spotlight on conservation and environmentally conscious business practices, India’s unique brand of innovation makes it ideally positioned to create products for a leaner, greener world.

Fostering Entrepreneurship

The Indian cultural ethos has traditionally been oriented towards seeking employment, initially in the public sector and more recently in the private sector. Entrepreneurship only used to be an option for the privileged, and few educated professionals saw it as a viable career option.

However, the growth of the IT and BPO industry – propelled by first-generation entrepreneurs like Bharat Desai, Narayan Murthy, Nandan Nilekani and Raman Roy – has done much to change the mindset of the current generation of Indians.

Entrepreneurial activity has now expanded beyond IT and BPO to many different sectors including retail, media, entertainment, real estate and infrastructure. Many of our leading business schools offer courses in entrepreneurship, and some have incubation facilities to nurture viable business ideas. The challenge is getting these ideas out of the classroom and into the boardroom.

Just as a hydroelectric dam serves no purpose until it is connected to the grid, the key to harnessing India’s entrepreneurial energy to give it an unfettered pathway into the marketplace.

The goal of the Indian Government should be to replicate the success it has enjoyed in IT and BPO in other industries. What we need is the support and infrastructure to nurture and develop entrepreneurs in multiple sectors – by creating policies and a regulatory environment that are friendly and conducive to new small businesses.

Institutions like TiE and Pan IIT serve as excellent models, and must expand their presence to reach the next generation of entrepreneurs.

How to Get Involved

The path thus far has not been easy. It has required enormous government investments in education and infrastructure, countless hours spent by entrepreneurs building their businesses, and the hard work and tireless pursuit of knowledge by legions of ambitious students. The way forward will be much the same.

In order to sustain India’s growth and dominance, IT and BPO companies must expand to smaller cities within India to successfully manage their business models. Our major metropolitan areas are too congested to support further expansion, and to leverage India’s growing workforce we will have to develop additional geographic capacity. This will require another round of investment in developing roads, power grids, telecom connectivity and municipal services in Tier 2 and 3 cities.

India also needs a significant expansion of entrepreneurial activity to trigger the next wave of socio-economic development. Syntel has taken the lead in this area by throwing our support behind Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), an international organization that promotes entrepreneurship and community involvement. By encouraging and mentoring young college students to start businesses in their communities, we can not only develop the next generation of business leaders, but also make a positive impact on the lives of the disadvantaged among us.

Finally, we need to reform India’s education and healthcare systems, both in terms of access and quality. The organized sector employs less than ten percent of India’s 500 million-strong workforce. Of this, the private sector accounts for only three percent. In order to keep up our economic momentum, India needs to create 150 million new jobs over the next decade for people entering the workforce.

If we don’t provide educational opportunities for rural India, we may well be unable to meet this demand, and the progress we have already made could slip away. Moreover, if the citizens of this country continue to be divided by basic issues such as healthcare and education, we will never reach our full potential and overcome the stigma of the “Two Indias.”

Each one of us is part of India’s future, and it is up to all of us to collectively harness the untapped potential of millions of Indians to make a positive impact on our own lives, on our country, and on the world as a whole. Instead of taking our own separate paths, let’s meet the future together.

The authour is President & CEO, Syntel