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Inaugural Houston India Conference Focuses on ‘Make in India’ Inside Story

Speakers for the inaugural Houston India Conference gather with conference organizers Jagdip Ahluwalia (left) and Jiten Agarwal (far right). The speakers are Ashok Malik (second from left), K. Nagraj Naidu, Subhash Chandra Garg, Nisha Biswal, Anupam Ray, Manjari Miller, Dhruva Jaishankar and Sadanand Dhume. Photos: Jessica Ngo, Asia Society Texas Center.

Speakers for the inaugural Houston India Conference gather with conference organizers Jagdip Ahluwalia (left) and Jiten Agarwal (far right). The speakers are Ashok Malik (second from left), K. Nagraj Naidu, Subhash Chandra Garg, Nisha Biswal, Anupam Ray, Manjari Miller, Dhruva Jaishankar and Sadanand Dhume.
Photos: Jessica Ngo, Asia Society Texas Center.

By Pramod Kulkarni

HOUSTON: Every public policy has an inside story. The inaugural Houston India Conference (HIC) at the Asia Society Texas Center on Friday, March 24, provided an economic and political backdrop behind India’s ‘Make in India’ campaign.
The policy insights were provided by leading Indian journalists, Indian and US government officials, and academic experts via four discussion panels covering topics ranging from recent political developments in India to India’s investment climate, its soft power and looking ahead to US-India relations in the Trump era.

The conference was the brainchild of Consul General in Houston, Dr. Anupam Ray with active engagement of Jiten Agarwal and Jagdip Ahluwalia. Agarwal, CEO of Houston-based Expedien, Inc., an IT company with offices in New Delhi, chaired the the conference and IACCGH Founding Secretary of the Indo-American Chamber of Greater Houston (IACCGH) co-chaired. It was Dr Ray who helped identify the speakers and encouraged them to accept HIC invitation to fly down from DC, Boston and India. Partner organizations for the HIC included Government of India, India House, IACCGH, Asia Society, Greater Houston Partnerhip, World Affairs Council, US India Skills & Education Council and the University of Houston.

Kallikesh Narayan Singh Deo, MP from Odisha, and a former executive with Enron, lived in Houston from 1998-2001.

Kallikesh Narayan Singh Deo, MP from Odisha, and a former executive with Enron, lived in Houston from 1998-2001.

It was the keynote speaker Kalikesh Singh Deo, MP from Orissa, who provided the rationale for the Make in India campaign. A resident of Houston from 1998-2001 when he worked for Enron, Deo said India’s youth-based demographics makes it necessary to create one million jobs every year. “The manufacturing sector offers the greatest potential for job creation.”

As a member of India’s Petroleum Committee, Deo suggested to the Houston audience of investing in the energy sector, where the country is forced to import 80% of its oil and gas requirements.

Consul General Anupam Ray suggested replicating the Texas “can do” spirit in India. He also remarked that investments from India in the US also growing and provided the example of Mahindra Tractors establishing its US headquarters in Tomball, Texas. IACCGH Executive Director also recalled the role the chamber played in bringing Mahindra to Texas.

In the first panel discussion, Sadanand Dhume, an Indian writer and journalist based in Washington DC, described the changing political scene in India with the ascent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its resounding victory in Uttar Pradesh and the parallel descent of the Congress party. He also said Communist party, which “had a disproportionate influence on India’s economic affairs”, was virtually extinct. Dhume suggested that seven years of BJP rule should provide a stable platform for investing in India.

HIC-in-2

Fellow panelist Ashok Malik, a senior Indian analyst and commentator based in New Delhi, said that with its $2 trillion GDP, 8.2% annual economic growth, and the “youth bulge of 485 million people between the ages of 15-34, and unlimited consumption of mobile phones and mechanized vehicles, represents an ideal investment partner for international manufacturers.

The second discussion panel delved into India’s investment climate as well. K. Nagaraj Naidu, a career diplomat with the Indian Ministry of External Affair, had a perfect recall of the vital statistics of India’s investment climate. “We now have 100 million transactions over mobile phones that is truly transformational,” said Naidu. “The baseline profitability index of India is number one in the world.”

Subhash Chandra Garg, Executive Director for Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Sri Lanka in the World Bank, praised the investment scenario in India with competition among the state to draw international investments. “The Make in India campaigned has opened up 25 industrial sectors, including textiles, construction, defense and energy,” Garg explained.

Then Dr. Bruce Leslie, Chancellor of Alamo College, recounted his personal experience in setting up a pilot skills training program for solar and wind energy installations in Gujarat. “Jiten Agarwal and Consul General Ray were very helpful in carrying out this highly successful pilot,” Dr. Leslie explained.

The panel on soft power elicited perhaps the most interesting discussion of the business conference. Soft power is associated with a country that is able to lead transformative change on the global scene without the use of force. Dhruva Jaishankar, Fellow for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution’s India Center in New Delhi, gave examples of soft power as emergence of Bollywood on the world’s entertainment scene, Indian characters on American TV, and corporate leaders such as Sunder Pichai of Google and Pepsi’s Inter Nooyi.

Jaishankar suggested that the Indian government is making a conscious effort to amplify its soft power by laying wreaths at the memorial to Indian soldiers for their gallantry in World War I in Belgium and the UN medical mission during the Korean war. “Negatives such as squalor and sexual assaults against women still need to be surmounted,” Jaishankar emphasized.

Manjari Miller, assistant professor of international relations at Boston University, had a contrarian view of India’s soft power. “India has lost some of its soft power such as strong sense of moralism and leader of the non-aligned movement. She should follow the example of China in overcoming its ideas deficit in how country would lead in international forums such as the UN Security Council.”

The conference concluded with a panel on “US-India Relations: Looking Ahead” with Ashok Malik and Nisha Biswal, former Assistant Secretary of State in the Obama administration. Biswal recounted her role in helping strengthen US-India relations as the “defining relationship of the 21st century”.

Under Obama, Biswal said the countries established strategic relationships across the full range of security, economic and energy policies. “I hope that in the new administration, the relations remain strategic and not become transactional.”
In his concluding remarks, Jiten Agarwal said the success of inaugural conference had given confidence to the organizers in making this an annual event.

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