Often, diplomats outsource investment presentations to their staff, but not Swati Kulkarni, the new consul general of India in Atlanta.
The medical doctor turned career diplomat with experience in the Middle East, Africa and beyond, was so enthusiastic that she spent nearly an hour working through a graphics-packed slide deck showcasing her country’s economic ascent.
Poised to become the world’s most populous nation, India has a chip on its shoulder about its lackluster economic performance — it’s only No. 7 economy in the world, lagging behind some much smaller countries. But that is changing as reforms to the tax code and business environment gradually take root, Dr. Kulkarni said at a “Doing Business in India” forum March 12.
“We are a nation which is restless; we are eager to overhaul our policies so that we get global recognition,” she said, noting that India had moved up to a still-painful No. 77 on the World Bank’s ease of doing business rankings.
Among the changes and initiatives are the Goods and Services Tax, which eliminated levies across borders separating India’s 36 states and territories, along with improvements to intellectual property protections, better bankruptcy laws, shorter times for business formation and infrastructure updates.
“We are surging ahead to become an economic powerhouse, and we hope to achieve that by 2025,” Dr. Kulkarni said.
Underpinning the growth story is a huge digitization drive that is changing the face of the economy, bringing more people into the formal sector as they come online.
India’s Aadhaar identity program has enrolled 1.1 billion people based on their biometrics. Paired with a plan to provide bank accounts for everyone, along with the proliferation of mobile phones, e-commerce has taken off, and governance (particularly the distribution of benefits) has been improved.
The country is leapfrogging traditional electronic payment models the that have taken hold in the West, with Indian consumers moving from cash directly to mobile transactions, largely through digital wallets.
“In India (mobile) is pushing credit and debit to the background,” Dr. Kulkarni said, a point that Atlanta’s payments companies would do well to note.
In a nod to another strong sector in Georgia, she outlined her desire to connect the Bollywood film industry with Atlanta’s growing production base, noting that India is not only a film factory, but also a massive media market where companies like Netflix are making inroads and gaming, animation and even news companies are thriving.
She also made a broad infrastructure push, noting opportunities for foreign firms in building roads, improving ports, bolstering rail connectivity and bringing more power online. Focusing on the area most relevant to Atlanta, she said the number of airline passengers is set to grow from 308 million to 420 million in just a few short years, meaning nearly limitless increased demand for air services. The U.S. has a fourth of India’s population but three times the annual air travelers.
While Atlanta lacks a nonstop flight to India, officials have been steadily courting Indian carriers and making the case for Delta Air Lines to restart its link to Mumbai.
Even as they wait, some have already started visiting India on medical tourism trips, taking advantage of the strong network of U.S.-trade doctors and affordable medications that account for a large portion of the generics that find their way to the U.S.
“I am very fond of telling you that every third pill you are taking in the U.S. is coming from India,” Dr. Kulkarni said. She added an anecdote: When she arrived, an Atlantan diagnosed with arterial sclerosis told her that his doctors had given him an appalling choice here in the U.S.: Death from the illness or bankruptcy from a $150,000 procedure.
“Between the two, he chose India,” she said, noting that he had the procedure done with a tour package added on for one-sixth of the cost.
The event was sponsored by the India-based KNAV International Ltd. accounting firm, which brought together a variety of organizations. The National Indian American Chamber of Commerce, which recently opened a branch in Atlanta, helped organize the forum.
To contact the Indian consulate’s commercial arm, click here.