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The world's not enough

india Updated: Aug 18, 2011 22:35 IST
Shashi Tharoor

In the last two decades, India has gone from being one of the least globalised economies in the world to one of the most dependent on international commerce. Right up to the late 1980s, foreign travel was a rare and much-coveted luxury for the middle classes. If one got to go abroad, one had to depend on the largesse of foreigners, since you could carry out of India only a measly foreign exchange allowance of (for much of that time) $8. Foreign goods were largely unavailable; visitors from abroad, bringing what for them were routine consumer items, were greeted almost as if they had introduced frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem.

Today, to use a cliché, India is not what it used to be. The world has changed, and in order to take advantage of it, India has changed too. Our markets are more open, we enjoy a wider range of consumer items than ever, and those who go abroad (far more than ever before) finance their travel and expenses with foreign exchange. Business process outsourcing has tied large numbers of Indians to foreign work environments and business partners. The world is no longer a strange, intimidatingly inaccessible place for most Indians. And in turn, the world sees India differently too.

Indian companies continue to expand outwards. They continue to set up overseas subsidiaries and partnerships. From the behemoths like Tata Consultancy Services in China and Bharti Airtel across Africa to small diamond trading units in Belgium or agricultural firms like Harrisons Malayalam buying plantation land in South Africa, to turnkey infrastructure project firms like GVK Power and Infrastructure in Indonesia, and many more examples too numerous to mention, Indian firms continue to expand and operate successfully in the rest of the world.

Now the India that is going global is also a remarkably young country. India's youth population remains an under-utilised economic asset. Census figures tell us that nearly 1/5th of India belongs to the 15-24 age group. By 2020, the average Indian will be 29 years. (At that time, the average Chinese will be 37 years old, the average European 49.) It is precisely this age group that, given the opportunity, seeks to travel, to escape home, to leap past the humdrum of school or college and see the world.

This provides us with a unique opportunity as a society. We are at a golden moment of being able to create a more globally-aware generation to shore up India's place in a globalised world.

The need is acute. Either we train and prepare our young people for a 21st century global economy, or we face disaster. Each year, based on 2005 figures, we will add around 5 million young adults (between 15-24 years) per year. These are 5 million potentially productive workers. But if they are unemployed or unemployable, they are also potential revolutionaries, Naxalites or stone-pelters. The frustrations of jobless young men lie behind most of the violent protests in the world.

Indian companies that operate outside India should be encouraged, through the diligent application of tax incentives, to use our young people as interns and specialist trainees. There are two benefits from such an arrangement: the firms get the ability to scrutinise and develop talent in-house for the future, while the young person gets the opportunity to work in a professional setting in a foreign country. Over the period of the contractual agreement, it is only natural that this young intern will travel around, interact with the local societies and — over a period of time — we will have Indians who know the world much better than the generation before.

There are many models we can study to fine-tune such a programme. The French, for example, have a governmental division that oversees its VIE (internship) programme, which is subordinated to the Secrétariat d'Etat au Commerce Exterieur (State Secretariat for Foreign Trade). Young French citizens apply to go work abroad for French firms via this agency. Their remuneration is such that one part of it is fixed, while the other is contingent on local wage levels. Often the retention levels at the firms that engage them are high as well. Over the years, the French have created a pool of young people who have served in far-flung areas — and reinforced Paris' own global vision and sensibilities.

In India, our industries and firms are at the cusp of expanding globally in an unprecedented fashion. Our young people are raring to travel, work and experience the world. There is no reason why we cannot bring them together and why a systematic competitive programme run by the government can't create a new generation of Indians who — while they enrich their own lives' experiences — will help build and project India's reach into the world.

Shashi Tharoor is a Lok Sabha MP and Keerthik Sasidharan is a New York-based investment banker. The views expressed by the authors are personal.