By Shashi Tharoor
Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author.
The Global Entrepreneurship Summit this month, which will see global figures like Ivanka Trump engage with Indian entrepreneurs, is generating a buzz. This event is happening at a time when India is increasingly becoming an entrepreneurship-driven economy that looks towards innovation as the path to the future. Indians across the board have embraced entrepreneurship with enthusiasm and spirit.
Startup Ecosystem in India
The tradition of Indian entrepreneurship is not a new one. Indians abroad have already proved themselves in the number of startups they have helped not just in Silicon Valley but also in London, Hong Kong and parts of East Africa. Their successes should inspire Indians at home to do the same.
The proliferation of startups within the country means that India has emerged as the world’s third-largest startup ecosystem.
Harnessing India’s Demographic Dividend
India’s economy has, of course, transformed itself dramatically since the liberalisation of 1991, when Dr Manmohan Singh famously told Parliament that no power on earth could stop an idea whose time had come.
And that idea was the opening up of the Indian economy, which not only gave us the growth and diversity that allowed us to weather the storms that confronted the global economy after the crisis of 2008 onwards, but which also enabled us to overtake Japan to become the third largest economy in the world in purchasing power parity (in PPP terms).
Yet, the best is yet to come, since age is on our side. We are the youngest major economy in the world, at a time when many of our potential Asian competitors – China, Japan, South Korea – are facing a serious demographic squeeze, and the rest of the world is aging.
In Europe the average age is going to be 46 by 2020, in Japan 47, and even in youthful immigrant-fuelled America, it will be 40, but in India the average age will be 29. We will be a young country – 50 percent under 25, and approximately 65 percent under 35 – where fresh school-leavers will be joining a dynamic, competitive, productive, youthful workforce, which could be the engine of the world, primed to take over from China.
But this demographic dividend will only work in our favour if we can educate and train our young people to seize the opportunities available to them in the 21st century – opportunities that entrepreneurs are creating.
Our demographic dividend could become a demographic disaster if we continue to produce legions of uneducated (or undereducated), unemployed (and largely unemployable), and therefore very frustrated young men and women.
Harnessing young India’s potential and bringing about the social and economic transformation we all hope for will require highly educated and motivated entrepreneurs to provide leadership across all sectors of our economy.
Some will succeed, and a number will fail, but they will all energise our economic spaces and help cultivate an ecosystem of entrepreneurial effort, as the right mindset is often half the battle won in finding the right solution.
Link between Jugaad and Innovation
Our Indian practice of ‘jugaad’ has received a lot of attention as a way of thinking out of the box, re-purposing familiar items to find solutions within resource constraints.
Critics, however, say that while it reflects Indian ingenuity, it too often involves cutting corners to get past the system, and “making do” rather than creating excellence. But the spirit of jugaad goes well beyond that: Google the phrase ‘frugal innovation’, and the first twenty hits will all relate to Indian inventions.
There’s the GE MAC 400, a handheld electrocardiogram (ECG) device that costs Rs 50,000 (the cheapest alternative costs more than Rs 1 lakh), reducing the cost of a cardiogram to 50 rupees, and the Tata Swachh, a Rs 1,500 water purifier (ten times cheaper than its nearest competitor). Indian biotech firms have dramatically reduced the price of insulin injections and hepatitis-B vaccines (the latter from $15 a shot to ten cents).
Indian entrepreneurial ingenuity has produced a startling number of world-beating innovations, none more impressive than the Tata Nano, which costs roughly the same as a high-end DVD player in a Western luxury car. Of course, there’s no DVD player in the Nano (and no radio, either, in the basic model); but its innovations (which have garnered 34 patents) are not merely the result of doing away with frills (including power brakes, air conditioning, and side-view mirrors).
Reducing the use of steel by inventing an aluminium engine; increasing space by moving the wheels to the edge of the chassis; and relying on a modular design that enables the car to be assembled from kits proved conclusively that you could do more with less.
Similarly, the Mangalyaan mission to Mars cost us approximately Rs 492 crore, which was less than the budget of the Hollywood space movie Gravity – and about 11 percent of the cost NASA incurred for its own latest Mars programme at Rs 4,500 crore.
Inspiring Journey of Jamsetji Tata
Thinking out of the box, coming up with new innovative solutions within our limited resources and constraints, is something we’re beginning to do. And since we do it so well, we need to do much more of it. We are the country that invented the zero, all those thousands of years ago. But today all we are inventing, it sometimes seems, is zero.
Entrepreneurship is key. I remain inspired by the story, from the 1890’s, of the great industrialist to be, Jamsetji Tata, who was denied admission to Pyke’s Hotel in Bombay at the peak of the British Empire, because they had a sign saying ‘Indians and dogs not allowed’. So he built a far grander, more opulent hotel that was open to Indians – the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which today is considered one of the finest hotels in the world, whereas Pyke’s has long since closed.
When the same Mr Tata set up India’s first-ever steel mill in 1905 in the face of implacable British hostility, a colonial official of that era sneered that he would personally eat every ounce of steel that an Indian was capable of producing. It’s a pity he didn’t live long enough to see the descendants of Jamsetji Tata taking over what remained of British Steel, through its acquisition of Corus. It might have given him a bad case of indigestion.
Distributing Benefits of Globalisation
So it can be done, and Indians can do it. But the magic of the market, where entrepreneurs thrive, will not appeal to those who cannot afford to enter the marketplace at all. We need to extend the benefits of globalisation and liberalisation to the poor, by supporting growth and also distributing the fruits of that growth to those who have been excluded or marginalised.
Whether we grow at 9 percent, as we once did, or at 5.7 percent, as we do now, we cannot forget that the focus of our development must be on the bottom 25 percent of our population.
Our problems are the same they have always been. The challenge for us is to use entrepreneurship to find new answers to old questions.
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