The India growth story will captivate global business and government leaders as they congregate at the World Economic Forum at Davos later this month. CII's theme at Davos, 'India Inclusive', is indeed apt. It also flags a critical component of growth strategy that will determine the country's future progress. Global analysts and national policymakers have been one in their opinion that India will continue to demonstrate high GDP growth rates over the next 5 to 7 years. However, this stellar growth will only be meaningful if a vast majority of the country's population who live in poverty get gainful opportunities to contribute to the productive mainstream of the economy. And that is indeed the challenge of inclusive development that India faces today.
It has taken more than a century of material wealth creation to realise that the economic model pursued by the world for so many years was terribly inadequate in creating equitable and inclusive societies. This also brings home the unquestionable fact that economic development and sustainable development are not necessarily the same thing. Nor is sustainable development only about creating green economies. Progress and development is about creating sustainable and inclusive societies. Economic growth models must, therefore, sub-serve a larger need to create greater societal value and not material wealth alone. That requires a far larger focus on the creation of sustainable livelihoods.
For developing nations like India, growth models and corporate strategies will need to make the creation of sustainable livelihoods the central and perhaps the most important component of economic policy. This is even more critical, given the fact that nearly 15 million young people will enter the job market every year. Unless opportunities for sustainable livelihoods are created, rising discontent and frustration could well lead to a situation of dangerous social unrest and anarchy, destabilising future growth prospects.
An overwhelming majority of the country's poor live in rural India. Predominantly living off the land, they are also the most vulnerable to problems arising out of environmental degradation, including climate change. In the best of circumstances, they are served by inefficient and fragile market systems. At worst, they are at the mercy of exploitation by market intermediaries. Either way, they are trapped in a vicious circle of poverty. An approach that views this disadvantaged population only as a market for low-cost low-value products and services contributes precious little to improving their lives or their future. It only implies a 'race to the bottom' to garner a small share of a deplorably small wallet. A more enduring and meaningful approach lies in co-creating new economic opportunities that empower them and build their capacity to earn meaningful livelihoods. In essence, increasing the size of their wallet and integrating them with the economic mainstream. It is this creation of a fortune 'for' the base of the pyramid that can make a fundamental difference to ensuring a secure and sustainable future.
The question is: can business play a meaningful role in catalysing this process of sustainable and inclusive development? I firmly believe it can. Private enterprises, through their operations, have a large number of touch points in society that constitute the front line of engagement with civil society. Their physical presence in communities around their catchments gives them an opportunity to directly engage in synergistic business activities that can create sustainable livelihoods and add to preservation of natural capital.
The key to the creation of sustainable livelihoods by business lies in innovation. I have said, in an earlier publication, that innovation is the elixir of growth in a competitive global economy. Innovation that is inspired by a vision to sub-serve larger societal needs is, to my mind, one of the most meaningful contributions that businesses can make and also the most fulfilling. The innovation challenge is, therefore, to craft business strategies that not only deliver unique customer value propositions but also enable twin impact-of ensuring a positive environmental footprint and creating sustainable livelihoods.
Our own experience at ITC, through innovations like the e-Choupal, R&D in clonal propagation for afforestation by poor tribals, community engagement for watershed development and many other such societal interventions demonstrates that it is eminently possible to create larger social value in the pursuance of sustainable wealth creation for all stakeholders. It is indeed heartening that today we have a growing number of such innovative interventions in the country. These also exist in a diverse range-from the GCCMF example of a co-operative movement exemplified by the Amul brand to self-help groups of rural women entrepreneurs rolling agarbattis and marketing through ITC's Mangaldeep brand, or in the hosiery clusters in Tirupur. Philanthropic engagements from corporate India have also been on the rise with innovative interventions by business leaders, including Azim Premji, Narayana Murthy, Ratan Tata, Sunil Mittal and many others.
The need of the hour today is to encourage such innovation in corporate strategies and business models that will enable companies to co-create, with local communities, opportunities for sustainable livelihoods. At the same time, civil society, including customers, investors and media, need to be made more aware of the tremendous change they can bring about by encouraging a preference for responsible companies. Preferential and differentiated fiscal and financial incentives for such companies with measurable societal contribution will encourage corporate innovation in creating opportunities for sustainable livelihoods. Public-private-people partnerships in projects that create larger societal value will need to be encouraged through appropriate policy frameworks at the national and state levels.
An inclusive India will be an empowered India capable of realising its potential to be the powerhouse of a new growth paradigm in the global economy. Growth that is driven not only by wealth creation alone, but more by the value that can be created for the larger society and the nation.
(Guest Column by Mr. Y. C. Deveshwar)