A first-time visitor to the ‘land of diversity’ is taken by her unabashed claim to progress and ageless charm (and the eJeepneys get special mention).
MANILA, Philippines — On our first day in India, we are taken on the three-month old Yamuna Expressway, a stretch of eight lane-road 165 kilometers long that connects New Delhi to Agra.
We sweep past vast expanses of green, past rice and cornfields, past tall, tapering smokestacks of brick ovens. It’s an impressive drive; what once took five hours for Delhiites to see the Taj Mahal is now a mere two hours, depending on how fast you’re driving.
We drive past the Buddh International Motor Race Circuit (site of the annual Formula One Indian Grand Prix), huge and imposing; throughout, there are billboards that carry not just ads for consumer products, but shoutouts for Indian pride. The national colors—green, orange, white—are incorporated even in corporate logos.
Yamuna Highway, therefore—despite the controversies that first surrounded it (the most major one being land acquisition)—may just be the best representation for India’s unabashed claim to progress. At least, that’s what it looks like to my eyes, a first-timer in a “land united in its diversity,” as India is often described.
New Economic Reforms
“You have come just at the right time,” former Indian Ambassador to the Philippines, Yogenendra Kumar, tells us after our trip to the Taj. During our visit, the Indian government had rolled out a series of announcements for economic reforms targeted towards raising foreign loans, easing up on bureaucracy, and swifter action for some industries to follow through with investments. The Ambassador quipped that two years’ worth of action was packed into just one week.
Over the past year, India’s global growth rate had dipped from 8.5 to 6.5 percent. “India needs to get back to 8.8 rates (its average growth from 2003 to 2008) for the long run, and not four to five percent, as predicted,” says Atul Shunglu, assistant secretary general of FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry). “It’s important that India moves out of this and jumpstarts growth.”
The proposed measures are a strident reaction to the decline. Among them: lowering of tax on foreign loans; allowing of FDIs in the retail, aviation, power, and broadcasting sectors; and allowing FDIs in the retail sector to invest up to 51 percent in all states (dependent, however, on the respective state’s decision).
The general mood was likened to when India underwent—and triumphed over—an economic crisis in 1991. “Tough times call for tough measures,” India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in several interviews with the Indian media, addressing critics. (Manmohan Singh was Finance Minister during the 1991 crisis, an instrumental figure in releasing the “caged tiger”—as India was referred to then—paving the way for economic liberalization.)
There will always be detractors, and change doesn’t come easily, but prospects remain positive.
The Ministry of Steel, for one, is poised to regain India’s place as the world’s second largest producer of steel. This, after having to import up to 30 percent of steel over the past six months. India is currently in fourth place, after China, Japan, and the U.S. The country has so far produced 74 million tons of steel in 2012, and is prepared to produce 200 million tons in 2020. She has the third largest iron ore deposit after Australia and Brazil, respectively.
There is also enthusiasm about the five year, one trillion-dollar investment target in infrastructure, which India hopes to achieve by 2017. Along with the opening of key sectors to FDI, the National Highway Development Project is initiating mega projects worth $60 billion. Other initiatives are the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (worth $90 billion), and the National Maritime Development Project.[India has a coastline of 7,500 km, is home to 12 major ports and 187 minor ports, making it a prime area for investment. Her Maritime Agenda until the year 2020, according to FICCI includes: increasing port capacity to up to 3200 MT (metric tons) by 2020, upgrading domestic ports to international standard, enhancing India’s share in global ship-building from the current one percent to about five percent by 2020; and improving tonnage and cargo-handling practices. Filipinos and India are kindred in the maritime community: while Filipinos lead the maritime race in the most number of ratings-level seafarers, India leads with the most number of captains.]
Another area of investment is automotives. India is the emerging global manufacturing hub for low-cost, compact cars. There is also opportunity in EVs (electric vehicles) and low-carbon emission technology—a sector that might be of strong interest to the Philippines, considering the growing awareness of electric tricycles and the eJeepney (which won the recent 2012 Mobility Challenge), and that a Philippine bank is set to make lending available for EVs.
Investment opportunities likewise lie in telecoms, with India having 961 million subscribers, particularly in the areas of value-added services and equipment.
The IT and IT-enabled services industry continues to be a sunshine sector for the Indian economy, envisioned to be a $25B industry by 2020.
Another strong area of investment is s, with India capturing eight percent of the global market. The country’s low manufacturing costs, readily available raw materials, and focus on R&D (the industry spends 18 percent of its revenue on R&D) make it attractive for potential investors.
Yet another is Electronics Systems Design and Manufacturing, or ESDM, where 100 percent FDI is allowed. The demand for electronics in India is projected to grow 22 percent to $125M by 2020, and exports are expected to increase from the current $4 billion to $15B by 2020. Particularly, there are opportunities in: semiconductor wafer fabrication; manufacturing of electronic components; semi-conductor design; manufacturing of telecomm products; industrial electronics, and consumer electronics (the rural consumer durable market is growing at 25 percent annually). The government of India has also approved a Modified Special Incentive Package (M-SIPS) in July of this year to provide subsidies and other incentives to promote large-scale manufacturing in this sector.
Being the world’s largest producer of coconuts, cashews, tea, milk, pulses, mangoes (41 percent of world market) and bananas (23 percent), India also presents huge investment opportunities in food processing. Specifically: warehousing and cold development storage, packaging machinery technology, lab infrastructure, dairy processing, and food processing units for domestic sales/exports. Overall, the industry is poised to reach $318B by 2020. This is another sector wherein 100 percent FDI is permitted.
A New Romance
Back to the drive to the Taj Mahal: after the splendidness of Yamuna Highway peters out, the roads reveal how most of the city of Agra—and indeed, the country—lives. Common folk bustling past on their motorbikes, sidewalk stores selling everything from food to clothes to pre-paid phone credits, men sitting idly in doorways. Goats amble across the road; cows laze where they please. Long time visitors and locals say that this is the real India, and not the shimmering representation that we just alighted from.
I guess everyone’s entitled to a wee bit of cynicism now and then.
There is none of that at the Taj Mahal, however, one of the most beautiful structures ever built. It was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a testament of his great love for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. She died giving birth to their fourteenth child, and legend has it that on her deathbed, she made him promise two things: to never re-marry, and to build her a most beautiful tomb.
Every year, two to three million visitors come to Taj Mahal to see what’s left of 22 years worth of labor by 20,000 workers from as far as Iraq. It’s still a breathtaking sight—the white marble and the iconic dome against the blue Indian sky. Up close, one can still see the marks where semi-precious stones were once inlaid.
My reaction is common, but unexpected: I am overwhelmed by emotion; I almost choke on my tears. Whether it’s because of the beauty of the place or the legendary love of the emperor and the empress, I’m not too sure.
No matter. I’m completely taken by the Taj, just as I am with India—or what little I know of it—confusion and criticism and all. Some might be conflicted about the boldness of its reforms, of its potential to claim superpower status. Some are dazzled and invigorated by it; others are blinded and prefer to look away and work in the light they’re familiar with.
But wherever India goes, whatever it defines itself to be, a visitor like myself will always remain entranced. There’s enough romance and excitement anywhere in the country to keep the romance alive.
Published September 30, 2012
Photo: Chennai, India. Technology and tradition unravel and mesh unfettered in the vast land daily, common fare to an India seeking to be what it was and what it wants to be. © Regina Auan