Column: A uniquely Indian growth model

Updated: Dec 7 2013, 10:32am hrs
When I listen to pundits, economists and multinational CEOs talk about India, often I detect a familiar note of frustration. India, they insist, should be blasting upward like a rocket, its growth rate ascending higher and higher, bypassing that of a slowing Chinas. Indias population is younger than that of its Asian rival and still growing. Its democratic government enjoys greater legitimacy; its businesspeople are more internationally adept. And yet the Indian rocket continues to sputter in a low-altitude orbitgrowing respectably at 5% to 7% each year but never breaking through to sustained double-digit growth.

According to this way of thinking, India is an underachiever, perversely holding itself backand needs only to fire some particular afterburner in order to get its rocket to full speed. The government needs to go on an infrastructure building spree, or open the door to big-box retailers. Political parties need to crack down on corruption and nepotism. Farmers need to adopt smartphones. Something will trigger the long-awaited boom, and the billions in foreign direct investment (FDI) that have flowed to China over the last two decades will at last head south.

If we continue to judge Indias progress by Chinas, using metrics like FDI and GDP growth, or statistics like the kilometres of highway and millions of apartments built, we will continue to be branded a laggard. Indias messy coalition governments are not suddenly about to become as efficient and decisive as Chinas technocrat-led Politburo. Nor should that be the goal.

Moreover, India simply cannot afford to grow like China has over the last two decades. In authoritarian, tightly-controlled China, the costs of that headlong economic expansion are obvious. Unbreathable air and undrinkable milk, slick-palmed officials and oppressive factory bosses provoke tens of thousands of protests each year. In a society as diverse as Indiasriven by religious, community, and caste dividesthose kinds of tensions can easily erupt in violence and disorder.

Theres no sense in pretending that India is a single investment destination or even a coherent, unified economic entity. Indias 28 states and seven territories are as different from one anotheras varied in language, food, culture, and level of developmentas the nations of Europe. In some ways, Gujarat has more in common with Germany than with Bihar. Companies understand this. When they make decisions about where to locate factories or R&D hubs, theyre looking at the tax policies, physical and legal infrastructure, or labour costs in the particular state theyre consideringnot at some mythical India visible only at Davos. We should be celebrating and encouraging these differences.

Certain states will be able to exploit these new powers better than others, of course, just as certain provinces on Chinas eastern seaboard have raced ahead of compatriots inland. But in India, success can inspire competition and push laggards to reformas Bihar, say, has begun to. Though it started from a very low base, the Bihar governments focus on improving basic governance by providing security and enforcing the rule of law has made a remarkable difference. For years, Bihar and three other troubled north Indian statesMadhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradeshwere collectively dismissed as BIMARU. The acronym, formed from the first letters of each state, was a wry put-down because it sounded like the Hindi word bimar, or sick. These days, the term no longer serves; not only does Bihar show new vigour, but Madhya Pradesh is now regularly included in rankings of Indias best-run states. All Indian states will have to improve their infrastructure and climate for doing business if they want to contend for major projects. In this way, investment will drive innovation and changes to the system much more efficiently than any edict from Delhi could. Tata Motors decision to shift its Nano project from West Bengal to Gujarat illustrates the point.

We should encourage a similar competition between cities as well as states. Indias biggest long-term challenge, like Chinas, is to figure out how to urbanise a population of more than a billion people. Millions have already migrated to the cities in the last two decades, and tens of millions more will soon follow. We cannot hope to stem this flow. Nor should we want tourbanised societies produce an array of positive outcomes, from higher literacy rates to lower infant mortality. At the same time, if we dont slow the influx of migrants to a dozen or so key urban centres, our already volatile and overburdened cities will collapse under the strain.

India needs to find a way to distribute growthto create new urban hubs all over the country that can attract talent and money.

Given how much India has benefited from the way fibre-optic cables have already shrunk the world, we should be quick to see the opportunities in shrinking the subcontinent, too. With widespread 4G connectivity, many businesses will be able to operate from anywhere. That will create an advantage for locations emphasising efficiency and liveability. Workers will be able to perform their tasks closer to home, if not actually at home, thus relieving pressure on Indias roads and bridges. Even manufacturing can be distributed, once technologies like 3-D printing become more widespread. Populations of labourers will no longer need to cluster around big factories. Indeed, once every home can become a manufacturing hub, the kind of small enterprises that have been the backbone of the traditional Indian economy could find ways to thrive in the modern world.

Forced to compete for talent and for business, cities will have to experiment and innovate. Several corporations, including Mahindra, have begun exploring new ways to live, work, and play in planned enclaves like Mahindra World City outside Chennai. While these efforts are continuing, the government, too, should foster and support such experimentation as a matter of urban policy. Already the government taxes coal and fossil fuels used in the power and transportation industries, and offers tax incentives for renewable energy and non-polluting vehicles. But we can go further, finding new ways to use technology to improve and expand the delivery of government services. The governments Unique Identification project, which uses biometric data such as photographs, fingerprints, and retinal scans to create cost-effective and easily verifiable ID numbers for all Indian residents, is an excellent example of how government can leverage technology to help Indias citizens. These new numbers will make it easier for Indians to pay taxes, collect government benefits, and receive other government services.

What India needs from the world as much as investment dollars are bold thinkers who can help to define these new ways of living. We should seek out these visionaries, give them a platform to test their theories, and invite them not to build gaudy skyscrapers but to help develop new ways for the human race to live. Foreign direct ideas should be as valued a commodity as traditional FDI. The world has a stake in Indias successand not just because of the need for someone to pick up the slack from a slowing China. Much of the developing world faces the same challenges India does. The solutions developed herethe answers to almost metaphysical questions about how societies should work and growwill have worldwide relevance.

For better or worse, India is where the future will be made. Lets get it right.

Anand Mahindra

The author is chairman and managing director, Mahindra Group

Excerpted from Mahindras essay in Reimagining India: Unlocking the Potential of Asias Next Superpower.

Copyright 2013 by McKinsey & Company. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc