SUNDAY MAGAZINE

On the move



The Indian presence in Davos is emblematic of a larger transformation in India.

I DID not go to Davos this year, but I've seen a list of the Indian delegates who did. They're a "Who's Who" of our country's business and industry, with an impressive sprinkling of top politicians and bureaucrats alongside. It was not quite the A to Z of the Indian economy, but the A to V the list ran from "Adi" (Godrej) to "Vilasrao" (Deshmukh, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra). Amongst the 67 names on the list were enough movers and shakers to cause a small earthquake, and the number of zeroes in their collective net worth would probably fill the rest of this column. But, impressive though that is, it's not the whole story of the Indian numbers at the World Economic Forum. I asked a prominent NRI businessman I know why he didn't go this year. "Oh, I did," he said. "But since I'm based in London, I'm not included in the Indian list."

Another discovery

The Indian presence in Davos is emblematic of a larger transformation in India, and in the way India is perceived internationally. It reflects the discovery of India by the world's financial markets. When I first went to Davos in the early 1990s, Indians were present, of course, but they bore the faint whiff of the exotic minority, noticeable but hardly worth noticing. The annual Indian reception thrown by the CII in those days was a semi-forlorn affair, overpopulated by official desis in bulging bandhgalas wolfing down samosas and scotch. Today it's the hottest ticket in the town of the Magic Mountain; the lines of well-heeled international businessmen queuing up to shake the hand of Finance Minister Chidambaram are reminiscent of those involving ticket-holders to the World Cup final. Indians are sought after because India, indubitably, matters to the world.

Impressive growth

And why shouldn't it? India's gross domestic product will rise by 9.2 per cent this financial year, which means that India is annually becoming richer by $200 billion, an increase in one year that exceeds the total GDP of Portugal or Norway. The level of investment in 2006-07 crossed 40 per cent of GDP; just five years ago, it stood at 25 per cent. If McKinsey are to be believed, some nine million jobs may be moved to India from the developed West in the next eight years. India's foreign reserves have exceeded $140 billion, enough to cover 15 months' worth of imports; fifteen years ago, the country had to mortgage its gold in London because the foreign exchange coffers were dry. The speed of India's growth is so remarkable that the IMF this year even warned of the risks of the economy "overheating". In Forbes magazine's published list of the world's billionaires, 27 of the world's richest people are Indians, and even more surprising, only four of them live abroad: Indian wealth is staying in India, and it's growing. Of course, a rather large portion of the world's poorest people live in India too, and you don't need to go to Davos to meet them. Our country's poor live below a poverty line that seems to be drawn just this side of the funeral pyre. And yet, for all the tragic news of farmers committing suicide and the undeniably sad sight of human beings reduced to begging on our city sidewalks, there have been positive developments here too. In 1991, 36 per cent of India's population (in those days, 846 million people), lived on less than one dollar a day, the World Bank's classic measure of absolute poverty. That added up to nearly 305 million people, giving India the dubious distinction of being home to the largest collection of poor people in the world. In 2001, our population had grown to 1.02 billion people, but after a decade of economic reforms, however fitful, the percentage of those living on less than a dollar a day had fallen to 26 per cent, or some 267 million people.

Tackling poverty

In other words, even though India had added 156 million more people to its population in the decade between those two censuses, the number of poor Indians had actually fallen by 37 million. The liberalised and liberated Indian economy had, in effect, lifted 94 million people out of absolute poverty in 10 years a feat on a scale that no country on earth, other than China, had ever accomplished. Today, five years later, estimates of people below the poverty level stand at 22 per cent. Economic growth is steadily chipping away at poverty, and it is doing so far faster than in the first four decades of Independence, when statist economic policies ruled the commanding heights in Delhi.

No room for complacency

None of this is grounds for complacency. We still have a long way to go; 22 per cent is still 250 million people living in conditions that are a blot on our individual and collective consciences. We must take the necessary steps to ensure that every Indian is given the means to live a decent life, to feed his or her family, and to acquire the education that will enable him or her to fulfil their creative potential. As an Indian, I'm chuffed at India's prominence at Davos, but to me that's not the most important measure of the country's international standing. I'm much more proud of the fact that India has shown a willingness to use its new-found prosperity to benefit others: it's an article of pride, for instance, that the Government has written off the debt owed to it for years by African countries. Let us celebrate, too, the fact that India was quick to respond to the devastation that followed the tsunami and helped lead international relief efforts in Sri Lanka even though Indian victims needed attention. India must show the world that it can go to Davos and stay true to its soul as well. >www.shashitharoor.com