Tuesday, July 13, 2010

You can't compete against China without focusing on education and reforms in agriculture and industry, says Venu Srinivasan

I have listened to many, many speeches ever since I decided to become a journalist years ago and began covering events for newspapers and magazines. Therefore, it doesn’t take you very long to gather how good or bad a speaker is. I am able to judge in a matter of minutes, perhaps even before the speaker has been able to string four or five lines together. Interesting speeches, like interesting made-of-stuff people, are rarities in today’s world. Most speakers once on stage think they have 'arrived' and go on endlessly bragging about themselves or the institutions they head, or spend endless minutes thanking the others on stage and of it, or have nothing interesting to say.

Having said that, there are some speakers I’d pay money to hear. One was, of course, Dr K.K. Misra, now somewhere in Orissa perhaps, but during his time in Chennai a most sought-after speaker. As a journalist, I do not suffer fools gladly and once in a way when there is an interesting speech I perk up my ears and listen. Recently, while doing some work for the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Southern Region, I listened to Venu Srinivasan, Past President, CII, and Chairman & Managing Director, TVS Motor Company Ltd, make some pertinent points.

It was the Chinese example Srinivasan used to drive home the point about competition and the need for India to buck up. Setting the tone at the inaugural of the TIDES Leadership Summit in Coimbatore recently, he said: “China is desperate to catch up and there are more students learning English in China than we have in India today. The number of people who go for secondary and tertiary education is larger in China.” According to him, the Chinese had set up a new technical university that catered to more than 25000 students, more than all the IITs put together, and had professors from Columbia University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology teaching.

“We cannot ignore in the long-term that every society is competing with another society,” Srinivasan said, giving the example of India and China presently and Rome and Europe in the past. He stressed that India would have to jockey for space in an economic war and create its own space. “Today, China occupies the manufacturing space in the world. If India has to create greater employment and 100 million jobs, we need to focus on how do we build a competitive society, where we get a greater share of the global trade.”

Srinivasan pointed to two areas that have remained neglected since the economic reforms (early 1990s) – agriculture and factory reforms. “For whatever jingoistic political reason”, agriculture retail was not open to international investment, he said, adding, “We are not exporting high-value crops; there is no extension service.” Ruing the lack of proper storage, procurement and quality checks, he was convinced that all that would happen only if foreign food processors and retailers were allowed to operate. He was for getting the mandis (wholesale markets) opened up so that people could buy directly without going to wholesalers who controlled the markets and gave the farmers a raw deal. He reminded the audience that 60 percent of the work force in India was still directly or indirectly dependent on the rural economy.

Regarding factory reforms, Srinivasan said no reforms were initiated since the liberalisation of the economy in the early 1990s, which allowed foreign direct investment (FDI) and removed industrial licensing, allowing people to make what they wanted and to compete in the market place. “India can grow to 12, 13 or 14 percent if factories are managed in a rational manner,” he said, and referred to the Factories and Establishment Act of 1900 vintage. “We don’t need so many acts; no need for multiple inspectors. There has to be some flexibility for labour; not large-scale hire and fire,” he added. If 100 million jobs were to be created in the coming five years, he was in no doubt that it could be done only by providing inclusive growth and equitable opportunity.

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