Atlanta’s Indian Consulate General set down roots in 2012 and has since firmly entrenched itself in the city’s diplomatic community and political sphere.
Local officials from Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul to (more recently) Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts have made trips to the country, nods to both India’s economic potential and the political imperatives implied by its large voting bloc in the north metro area.
Yet in certain ways, Atlanta has yet to gain similar recognition in the opposite direction, often taking a back seat to perennial metro powerhouses like Houston, Chicago and New York when it comes to attracting Indian delegations and investment.
Swati Kulkarni, the third consul general in seven years, is aggressively acting to counter that, with recent activities proving her commitment to boosting the Southeast region for the benefit of Indian companies considering a U.S. presence and the communities that may end up hosting them.
The most recent example is Globalsoft, a conference launched by India’s government to find customers for Indian software companies overseas. On a recent recruiting trip to the U.S. ahead of next year’s summit in Hyderabad, the group would have skipped over Atlanta, a city that has been praised for its fast-growing technology sector and role as the U.S. epicenter of electronic payments.
“We said no, no, no, you are coming to Atlanta,” Dr. Kulkarni said in an interview with Global Atlanta. “I told them that Georgia is an upcoming fintech destination and that we have this synergy.”
She hopes to send a delegation of Atlanta companies to Globalsoft 2020 to spur collaborations in cybersecurity, fintech, smart cities and other sectors. Chairman Nalin Kohti issued an open invitation to Atlanta firms while visiting the city in mid-October.
Dr. Kulkarni’s team also coordinated congressional outreach and VIP hospitality at the recent “Howdy Modi” gathering in Houston. The volunteer-led event spearheaded by the Texas India Forum brought some 50,000 members of the Indian diaspora together to welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was visiting the U.S. for the UN General Assembly. Dr. Kulkarni helped welcome various U.S. senators as well as President Donald Trump, who made an appearance on stage with Mr. Modi, praising Indian-Americans and pledging his support for the country.
A Georgia Office in India?
During an interview at Global Atlanta’s most recent Consular Conversations luncheon at Miller & Martin PLLC, Dr. Kulkarni shared experiences from her long diplomatic career and gave a glimpse of her efforts to cement India in the minds of Georgia’s business community.
Her country has already been a major source of investment, with tech giants like Wipro, Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services, TechMahindra and others having installed large software development shops employing hundreds in the metro area.
Less known is its deeper industrial investment. Aluminum giant Novelis Inc., for instance, an $11.5 billion company based in Buckhead, is owned by the Birla Group, which also bought Atlanta-based Columbia Chemicals in 2011 for $875 million. Jindal Films in LaGrange is another example of an Indian company buying into the state, in that case with a $180 million investment.
Still, more states should understand the long-term potential of India’s outward focus, she said. The consulate is working on a business directory of Indian companies in the Southeast that educate local leaders on their existing Indian investors while also creating a mechanism for Indian firms to share best practices on entering the U.S. market.
“We need to tell people that we are here,” she said, giving the example of a $90 million investment in South Carolina that opened in May.
Sundaram Clayton, a manufacturer of aluminum castings for the automotive sector, set up shop near the growing number of Southeast U.S. car plants amid trade tensions playing out between the U.S. and India. The Trump administration removed the country’s preferential trade treatment this year, meaning higher tariffs on certain goods. Steel and aluminum tariffs were already impacting bilateral trade, though both sides say talks to defuse the situation are ongoing.
Dr. Kulkarni said Sundaram Clayton’s search was helped along by the South Carolina trade office in Delhi.
Georgia, which has offices in 12 countries, lacks one in India. The state had been reviewing afresh the possibility of a presence there, but Delta Air Lines Inc.’s decision to fly nonstop to Mumbai from New York rather than Atlanta has dimmed the chances, according to some close to the decision.
Meanwhile, the consulate hopes to recruit an Enterprise Florida office, and some Georgia jurisdictions are evaluating the prospect of putting their own boots on the ground.
Mr. Pitts, the Fulton County chair, visited India in October to explore economic collaborations and floated the idea of putting a county office in Mumbai during a meeting at the World Trade Center in India’s commercial capital. Al Nash of Select Fulton also joined that trip. (A call to Mr. Pitts’ office was not returned as of publication time.)
Dr. Kulkarni said Georgia should be “in the queue.”
“We are trying very hard to convince Georgia Department of Economic Development to open up an office in India,” she said. “They will see the potential.”
Dr. Kulkarni believes the timing is right. India is coming off an election that installed Mr. Modi for another five years, offering a chance to deepen reforms that some have criticized as too slow given the parliamentary majority and sky-high expectations after his first election in 2014.
The consul general argues that more India’s future fundamentals remain strong. India has a “demographic dividend” coming, with 65 percent of its 1.2 billion people under 30, providing a “surplus workforce” for services and manufacturing companies.
It also has a global diaspora community — including about 4 million in the U.S. — who are increasingly committed to investing back home.
“They know India like the back of their hand, and that gives a vital bridge for us,” she said. This “brain gain” has followed the “brain drain” of the 1970s and ‘80s, when many educated Indians left for Silicon Valley and other outposts of opportunity.
India has moved up the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings from No. 142 to No. 77 last year. In part that has been fueled by new bankruptcy and intellectual property laws, a “single window” for business formation that combines 20-plus departments into one digital point of contact and the recently adopted Goods and Services Tax, which removed interstate levies in favor of a unified national tax structure.
Dr. Kulkarni added less-publicized moves like the creation of a foreign investor visa, extended hours for cargo clearance and more. It’s all part of the Modi government’s commitment to “minimum government, maximum governance,” she said.
Atlanta’s Role in Digital India
There’s a particular relevance for Atlanta in India’s strides toward digitization in the area of governance and payments.
The legacy of India’s 2016 “demonetization” drive — when the government abruptly took all 500- and 1,000-rupee notes out of circulation ostensibly to counter corruption — may be mixed, but it’s undeniable that hundreds of millions have been brought into the formal economy. That’s thanks to the Aadhaar biometric identification program that has enrolled more than a billion people, a drive toward bank accounts for all Indians and the ubiquity of mobile devices.
“Every Indian, he has his Aadhaar card in his pocket, he has a mobile phone with him, and he has a bank within his reach. It has transformed the life of India — not only his life, but also it has transformed governance. It has become more transparent, more accountable. We are able to get banking, insurance, pensions more easily to the people,” Dr. Kulkarni said.
The trend has led to massive innovation in financial technology, an area where Georgia is a leader in the United States. Digital wallets like Paytm and Google Pay now have users numbering the hundreds of millions in India as the country “leapfrogs” traditional plastic payment cards.
Focusing on Facts in Kashmir
Beyond economic engagement, Dr. Kulkarni also used the event to highlight the Indian government’s stance on Kashmir, a regional flash point where separatist violence has killed more than 40,000 people since the 1980s.
In August, India abrogated the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy and split it into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
“It’s a reorganization that has been ongoing in India to make the administration smooth, to make sure that social and economic development happens,” the consul general said, pointing to the fact that other Indian states have been bifurcated in recent history.
She added that more than 100 Indian laws — including some key protections for women — had not been applicable in the state, and that one goal of the move was to ensure uniformity of civil rights across the whole of India’s territory. Another was to spur investment and development in an area that has lagged the rest of the country in health care, education and other indicators, despite being the recipient of billions of dollars in targeted aid. Now, citizens from other states in India will be able to own land in Jammu and Kashmir, a move the government hopes will spur private enterprise and educational institutions.
Still, others see religious motivations from a Hindu nationalist BJP government that has been accused of condoning (or at least not condemning) violence and discrimination against the country’s 175 million Muslims. Ahead of the move in Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian government deployed additional troops to the region, shut down Internet and mobile phone access and detained elected leaders in an effort to head off demonstrations.
Dr. Kulkarni’s office stressed in a mid-October briefing that not one bullet had been fired and that the government was thanking the population for their commitment to peace during this time of transition. Elections have been pledged “once normalcy is restored.” As of Oct. 17, public transit, post-paid phone service, cable TV and banking and ATMs were operational, and restrictions on tourism and the Hajj to Mecca had been lifted. Sporting events were slated to continue. The government pledged to buy 60 percent of the region’s apple crop to help local farmers, and some 50,000 job openings are expected to be filled in the coming months.
In response to an audience question at the Consular Conversation, Dr. Kulkarni dismissed the idea that the BJP-led government favors Hindus over the many sizable religious minorities prevalent in the world’s largest democracy, which is home to Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Baha’is, Zoroastrians and other sects in addition to hosting one of the largest Muslim populations in the world.
“We have a diverse country, and we always cherish that, because unity in diversity is one of the best selling points as far as India is concerned.”