When an elephant attempts to change course, it takes a while for it to align its massive frame with the new course.
While liberalised India has grown past its initial struggle, it still has to travel some distance before it regains its equilibrium on the new path.
It is true that Corporate India no longer has to contend with the overpowering state apparatus of the pre-liberalisation years; and all the economic indicators show that the country is well on its way to becoming one of the most powerful market economies in the world. However, it is also true that we still face some transitional difficulties — be it poor infrastructure or a regulatory malfunction or a taxation anomaly.
In terms of infrastructure, despite our best efforts, we still have a considerable way to go before we can match the standards of the developed world or even some other recently emerged economies like China. This definitely has a direct bearing on Corporate India’s productivity.
Learning to cope with, and succeed in the midst of, this inadequate infrastructure is a real challenge. This is particularly so when import tariffs have fallen sharply over the years, exposing Indian producers to competitors located in more efficient ecosystems.
Some regulatory delays are also a cause for concern. Raising foreign direct investment limits in insurance and retail, as also the 3G auctions in telecom, has clearly taken longer than anticipated. Part of the reason obviously relates to our slow-moving and democratic decision-making process.
Today I believe that going global is no longer an option for Indian corporations — in several sectors it is the only way to go.
Recently, slowing global economies have clearly thrown a spanner in many expansion plans. The challenge lies in successfully sailing against the wind. It makes sound sense to acquire new overseas targets when corporate valuations are at historic lows. I also believe that an experience of overseas markets can contribute to securing a leadership position in the domestic market.
Of late an empathetic government, willing to play the role of an increasingly proactive facilitator, comes as a positive and welcome sign for India Inc. Whether it is a commitment to rapidly ramping up infrastructure (target of building 20 km of road a day) or a supportive stance towards Indian business’ global aspirations, we are seeing a fresh zeal in the government’s attitude. I think the Indian government turned a new page in India’s corporate history when it backed Bharti in our proposed merger bid with African telecom major MTN; much the way governments in developed economies support overseas bids for home-grown corporations.
The diversity of the Indian market has always been a huge challenge. The cultural dissimilarity across regions paves the way for wide variations in consuming habits. Achieving the leadership position in such a market and staying there truly require profound market insights at regular intervals.
Another complexity that India Inc. still has to contend with is a multiple tax structure, both at the federal and state levels. I hope some relief will be introduced soon, in the shape of a goods and service tax (GST).
A steady 8-9 per cent GDP growth rate over a substantial period of time, prior to the present slowdown, and more than 6 per cent growth during the crisis clearly mean that Corporate India has become a consistent wealth creator. But merely creating pockets of prosperity is not enough. The real challenge lies in expanding these pockets rapidly, to include hitherto untouched sections of our population and to make growth more inclusive.
Alongside Corporate India’s path-breaking initiatives, to touch lives at the bottom of the pyramid through their businesses, I personally would like to see more philanthropic initiatives from the corporate sector.
All challenges need to be seen and weighed relative to their times. The elephant will perhaps complete its course correction in a few years from now and make India a true market economy; and the challenges facing India Inc. will obviously be different then.
However, one challenge that is likely to confront us for a long time is posed by our dream of ushering in a growth process that is broad-based and inclusive. But then, such a dream is worth chasing even if it takes a lifetime.
The author is Chairman and Group CEO of Bharti Enterprises.