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Musings from India Economic Summit

While gushing over India's potential, panellists also lament the slowness of change, writes Chaitanya Kalbag.

india Updated: Nov 29, 2006 03:23 IST

Meeting old expectations

"When you were five years old, you were happy nearly all the time. Somebody had to make you unhappy. Now you are 30-plus and have achieved your dreams, and you are unhappy all the time. Somebody has to make you happy."

Delegates at the India Economic Summit laughed nervously. There was a good dose of "interiority" and "well-being" in New Age guru Jaggi Vasudev's talk, but that was about the only time the networking classes paused to draw breath - literally, with their palms upward on their laps - during two and a half days of confabulation.

There were 720 delegates at this year's World Economic Forum event in New Delhi, and the largest contingent yet of overseas company chief executive officers, a sign that the world is really taking India seriously. Although there was a lot of talk about supply-chain efficiency, the coming retail revolution, and rural development, there was also hand-wringing about the slowness of change.

As is usual at these annual talk-fests, panellists spoke passionately about a host of subjects ranging from "The Opportunities of Smart Growth" to "Can India run without water?" The risks to India's success are clear. Loss of freshwater resources, oil price peaks, the wrong sort of globalisation, climate change, and HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis - and the challenge of demographics. (Sonia Gandhi put it succinctly: "While the world faces old-age problems, India faces age-old problems.") Equally clear are the exciting changes under way, from the reforms on in Bihar to the dramatic empowerment of women and children in bonded labour in Tamil Nadu.

Finding the right fellow travellers

Bus rides to and from large conferences can be hugely educational, if you happen to be sitting beside interesting people. On the way to 7, Race Course Road, on Sunday to hear the prime minister tell WEF delegates "Inclusive growth is not a buzzword" and then host a charming garden tea party, Pakistan's Minister of State for Finance Omar Ayub Khan (the general's grandson) talked about the pace of reforms in his country. It is a pity that the former Citibanker later said trade between the nuclear-armed neighbours would not go up until the Kashmir issue was resolved. At no point since Independence have the two countries had such a good opportunity to put their economic relationship right - both prime ministers are technocrats.

On the return journey, Dr Gene Huang, Chief Economist with FedEx Corp, rattled off numbers that prove that the Memphis-based giant is the world's only true multinational. It has 270,000 employees in 220 countries including Iraq and Afghanistan. The acknowledged masters of the just-in-time supply chain concept sent shivers through the aviation industry earlier this month when they cancelled their order for ten Airbus A380 super-jumbos and switched to Boeing 777s. Huang said FedEx has the largest aircraft fleet in the world - 700 wide-bodied planes, bigger than any passenger airline by a mile. And on December 18 this year, the company that Fred Smith founded 35 years ago will be handling ten million packages.

Supply-chain blues

Hans-Joachim Korber, CEO of German retain giant Metro Group, did a lot of talking during the summit on the supply chain, which he said was "totally underdeveloped". Farmers who want to get the best prices for their produce will need an efficient "cold chain" with refrigerated trucks, not a common sight on 40-degree Celsius roads in India.

Metro operates two "cash and carry" mega stores in Bangalore and is planning to open new ones in Hyderabad and Kolkata soon. Cash and carry stores aim to slip through the cracks in India's regulations, which ban foreign participation in multiple-brand retailing. Korber said he estimates India's farmers waste 40 per cent of their produce between their farm gates and the consumer because of the fragmented supply chain.

"India could easily be the food factory of the world," he said. Seventy per cent of the Metro merchandise in Bangalore is food, and 60 per cent is fresh food. The stores sell three tonnes of fresh fish every day, and buy all their produce direct from farmers.