Rajiv Kumar

India Inc's unique challenges

Rajiv Kumar | Updated on April 03, 2011

To succeed, Indian business has to cater to the bottom of the pyramid, where purchasing power is low but individual aspirations are high.   -  Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

BL02RAJIV1   -  BL

Indian industry today operates under unique circumstances, demanding solutions that are collectively worked out rather than imposed from outside.

I write this from the Scottish village of Aberdour, located on the idyllic Forth estuary, near Edinburgh, , where I am attending the plenary session of the International Futures Forum (IFF) headquartered here.

IFF brings together specialists and experts across disciplines, encouraging participants to think laterally and stay open to learning, no matter how high they rank in their vocation. In the process of finding solutions, ‘IFFers' undertake a learning journey, live with the problem and work towards a solution together with all the stakeholders. This approach of collectively working towards solutions, rather than imposing them from outside, is ideal for Indian conditions, marked by complexity and ongoing multiple transitions.

Bottom of the pryamid

Indian business today is in a unique situation that calls for much more than the standard strategic management models. Let me elaborate. First, Indian business, in order to succeed, has to necessarily cater to the bottom of the pyramid where purchasing power is still low but individual aspirations are high and there is a growing demand for globally comparable products. Second, domestic business is increasingly exposed to global competition and yet has to absorb the higher cost of infrastructure and other public goods and services, including security, normally available in other countries at relatively subsidised rates. Third, Indian industry may continue to face serious constraints such as rigid labour markets, higher costs of capital, higher transactions costs and a degree of uncertainty, as distinct from risks, in the investment environment owing to the nature of domestic politics and the relatively autonomous Indian State.

Fourth, trust deficit persists in the interaction between industry and public authorities that precludes the emergence of a converged national strategy to take India forward globally and achieve clearly defined national interests. Fifth, Indian business remains highly fragmented, whereby one segment can easily be played off against another. This leaves industry in no position to demand accountability from public authorities and keeps it constantly on the defensive even when it is universally recognised for generating value and much-needed employment, reaching for globally frontline technologies and expanding global footprint.

This, albeit not exhaustive, list clearly outlines the rather unique circumstances in which Indian industry, whether private or public sector, finds itself in today. The way forward must, of course, emerge from rejecting any second-hand solutions and having the courage to break new ground. Scotland did this when it engendered the first enlightenment with the deliberations of Smith, Hume and others in the Oyster Club. Perhaps we in Indian industry can help engender the second enlightenment in an attempt to find solutions for our audacious undertaking of simultaneous social, political and economic transition — a unique and historical human endeavour.

Global thought leadership

In this context, the Indian corporate sector would be wise to engage globally frontline thinkers from a range of disciplines to help it chart a direction in a globally integrating scenario. While some large corporate houses may have already embarked on such an exercise, there is surely merit in extending it across the entire corporate sector, with the results made available for public discussion and implementation. Such an exercise in parallel with the preparation of the country's twelfth Five Year Plan can help India Inc provide constructive inputs for the plan process. Today, planners are more open to such inputs in a welcome development that recognises that planning in isolation from the private sector or civil society is at best dysfunctional and at worst seriously damaging to the investment environment and growth prospects.

Major industrial houses or premier industry chambers and associations must work together to support such a forward-looking and analytically rich study into the future prospects of, and constraints on Indian industry. In the absence of such a joint effort by corporate India, there is the danger of the nation's future growth being harvested by others. This is an unacceptable prospect because it implies an inability to generate the employment needed to constructively absorb our young labour force which, in turn, will result in unbearable social stresses and conflicts.

The good news is that there is a noticeable trend in Indian business to engage with global thought leaders, many of whom are Indians. Clearly, there is a transition towards looking beyond the government and taking destiny into one's own hands. A rather subversive thought! But then, an IFF plenary session, where all dogmas are constantly challenged, evokes such thinking and will, hopefully, find resonance among all the stakeholders in India's future.

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Published on April 02, 2011
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