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India on the Move

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India on the move
By Jazib Zahir
MBA students often study a case titled "India on the Move" published by Harvard Business School. The case touches upon recent attempts by the Indian government to liberalise the country's economy and this is cited as a key factor behind India's prodigious growth rate over the last two decades. The case conveys a sense of excitement around the business opportunities present in this vast land through facts, figures and analysis.
But you can't understand a country by reading about it anymore than you can understand business just by reviewing a textbook. Fortunately, I had a chance to visit some of the major cities in India for a few days and form some superficial impressions of the business environment there.
The first thing I noticed when I disembarked in Delhi was the wealth of foreigners in the land. Indeed, as I exited the airport, the number of Caucasians and East Asians on site was comparable to the number of natives. Wherever I went, it was common to see foreigners assimilated into the work environment. Many had brought over their spouses and children to live in the country, even if their stay was meant to be temporary only.
In fact diversity, even in subtle ways, was the hallmark of my time spent at an office in Delhi. It was common for all the team members, including the management, to sit around one table at lunch time. The team included people from different religious backgrounds and a range of dietary restrictions was in place. However, people could casually joke about these differences without offending anyone in a manner that I have not yet experienced in my own country.
My sense is that the regulatory environment in India is more stringent than that of Pakistan. Taxation and capital controls are taken more seriously at the corporate level as finance departments endeavour to keep their reporting accurate and up to date. The policy of Maximum Retail Price for goods helps keep prices stable. Under a national employment programme, rural citizens are guaranteed 100 days of employment by the state and this is enforced through a number of local bodies.
Symbols of the growing wealth of the population are ubiquitous. I saw dozens of billboards heralding the arrival of the iPhone 4. Luxury brands have found eager customers in Indian cities. Hermes has not only set up a shop in India, it has localised its goods by launching a line of saris. 
At the other end of the spectrum, I was most impressed by the commitment to lifting millions out of poverty through the use of innovative technologies and financial services. Consider the company FINO. It boasts proprietary electronic technology that facilitates rural households in accessing banking services and transferring payments. The showrooms for the Tata Nano automobile epitomise the efforts to bridge the poverty divide. Major players in off-grid energy solutions like dlight have formidable presence in the country. Regional entrepreneurs are highly respected and play a key role in providing access to basic services and utilities to the vast rural populations. 
That is not to say that the Indian business environment is devoid of problems. Local businessmen readily admit that the eastern portion of the country lacks the political stability and economic growth that characterises the rest. The number of political divisions in the country has reached 28 and is expected to rise further. Corruption, too, is an accepted way of life. Urban sprawl and traffic are much more atrocious than what you find in Pakistan.
Nevertheless, India seems to have moved beyond politics, which is a less dominant conversation topic than it is in Pakistan. The most productive minds are able to enjoy fairly steady access to basic infrastructure and utilities like electricity and gas, and are focused on the economic opportunities in front of them. Many people working in Delhi commute for several hours a day from nearby cities to reach their offices. Many of these same people study on the weekends to enhance their credentials. There is a general acceptance that competition has grown tremendously and you must go the extra mile for the sake of your career. 
There is a palpable sense of ambition bubbling through the workforce. Employees at traditional multinational brands grouse about bureaucracy and dabble in thoughts of risky, but rewarding independent ventures. One senior executive at a major oil company told me that he was ready to resign and join his son to investigate renewable energy opportunities for base of the pyramid populations. Young people were looking beyond the stability of traditional careers to follow their passion in academia or entertainment. 
Ultimately, India is on the move because of its energetic and committed workforce. If we too can learn to look beyond our problems and approach business with the same zeal, there is no reason we can’t emulate India’s success.
The writer is an Adjunct 
Professor at LUMS and 
a technology etrepreneur. 
jzahir@alumni.staford.edu

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