Shaping a New India was the theme of the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit 2019, and this “new India” was very much in evidence at the ninth edition of the event, which took place on 18-20 January.
Vibrant Gujarat was launched in 2003 by Narendra Modi when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat State. Since then, Modi has become Prime Minister, and the summit has grown to become a huge event that acts as a showcase not just for Gujarat, but for all of India. Around 30,000 delegates now attend the biennial event that includes one of the biggest trade shows in the world, exhibitions promoting Indian products and technology, and seminars on countries, sectors, investment and much more.
Under the umbrella of Vibrant Gujarat are a number of other conferences – for example covering specific industries, a convention dedicated to SMEs, and a youth programme. There were also a lot of business matching events and opportunities to network.
I was invited by the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce to speak at the Global Conclave of International Chambers of Commerce, which took place for the first time this year. In total, 42 international chambers were represented at this event, as well as 24 Indian chambers of commerce representing different regions.
This is only a tiny snapshot of the whole summit, which took place over the course of four days.
This was my first time to attend Vibrant Gujarat, and I was impressed. Not just because of the high calibre of speakers and delegates, and the range of events. But also because the successful delivery and smooth running of such a large-scale event is a clear demonstration of what India is capable of today.
There is certainly no doubt that India is becoming a much better place to do business. In the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, India jumped from 142 in 2014 to 77 in 2018, and Modi is not resting on his laurels in this area.
“I have asked my team to work harder so that India is in the top 50 next year,” he said during his speech at the summit. “I want our regulations and processes to compare with the best in the world.”
Modi also drew attention to the reforms that the country has made to encourage foreign direct investment, which has seen rapid growth in the past four years.
The changes to the business environment are something I have seen for myself in the past few years. I started doing business in India in 2005, and since then I have been a frequent visitor to the country. There have been challenges along the way, including excessive red tape, unreliable infrastructure, difficulty in hiring skilled local staff and some corruption issues. But the situation is improving all the time.
Another change is that Indian businesses have become more confident about what they expect from overseas investors. When I first went to India, I encountered a lot of ambiguity and short-term thinking. Now, the environment is much more promising and businesses know what they want to achieve.
At the summit, some of the high-level officials I met included the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic Andrej Babis, President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and Prime Minister of Malta Joseph Muscat.
And I met Prime Minister Modi himself. I was invited to a private lunch that he also attended, and I had the opportunity to meet him and introduce the Chamber.
While the Vibrant Gujarat Summit was certainly a great opportunity to introduce HKGCC to businesspeople and officials, it also highlighted the opportunities for Hong Kong companies
Modi’s “3D Vision” concept to attract foreign investment – with the three “D”s standing for democracy, demography and demand – was an underlying theme of the summit. The country is changing rapidly, the population is young and they want to try new things, creating huge consumer demand.
In the longer term, the goal of India is to become industrialized, which also creates opportunities for Hong Kong companies with the right expertise.
Gujarat State itself is very pro-business and entrepreneurial. During my visit I saw a new state-of-the-art public hospital, and also had the opportunity to visit the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City – or GIFT – which can help foreign investors access India’s stock markets, among other services.
But to grab the emerging opportunities in India, Hong Kong businesses need to have the hunger to succeed. Our members should go there themselves, and they will see the improved transparency and reduction in red tape.
We are a little bit behind the curve. I did not encounter other Hong Kong businesspeople at the event, but I did see plenty from Mainland China. Japanese businesses are also well established in India, and are major investors in Gujarat’s auto sector.
Many of us have the impression that the country is still very old-fashioned and lacking in infrastructure. But the improvements are visible on the ground, for example in the country’s new metro systems and upgraded airports.
Investing in India is not without challenges. But as we have been reminded recently with the U.S.-China trade tensions, Hong Kong is very dependent on external trade. Now is perhaps a good time for Hong Kong businesses to shake themselves up a little bit and explore these exciting new markets.