On my first trip to Gujarat, particularly for the purposes of attending Vibrant Gujarat, I was left with three unexpected impressions.
The first is in relation to the process and outcomes of Vibrant Gujarat itself. The opening session – which ran for nearly four hours of speeches without a break, culminating in Prime Minister Modi’s pre-circulated scripted address – basically comprised various country or institutional spokespeople talking about their desire to increase their own wealth through trade with India. At one point, it almost felt like a bidding war as representatives attempted to outdo one another with rhetoric about how much they loved India and its government. Some speakers, like the Bhutanese, used the opportunity to seek India’s assistance in its own economic growth.
This address was both serious and light-hearted, skirting around the real issue concerning its other powerful neighbour, China. It took US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to accurately sum up the audience’s mood by the third hour when he noted with words to the effect: “We have reached the point in the proceedings where everything that can be said has been said, but not everyone has said it yet”.
The fact that day 2 of the gathering saw a virtually empty main hall, with scant attendance at the various breakout sessions in other venues, left a first-time participant like myself feel like this event was really all about the headlines in the morning show and little else – which of course, is not the stated objective of Vibrant Gujarat at all. Judging by some of the similarly critical headlines from the Indian media in the days that followed, I was not alone in my assessment.
Second, following on from this, is the fact that I had far superior engagement with interesting and relevant business leaders and individuals in the events outsideVibrant Gujarat. Sri Samir Patel and his team at the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce were outstanding advocates and the most generous hosts in everything from the pre-conference reception sponsored by Adani Group, to private dinners with guests from a diverse range of successful small businesses. Special mention should also go to the Gujarat Cup Golf Day and evening recital organised by Club Golf 27, which again provided the opportunity for a detailed exchange about government, business and regulation not only as between Australia and India, but a range of other stakeholders in our region.
It became clear to me that for all the reform being made at the upper echelons of government and India’s improvement in the global rankings measuring ease of business, there is serious reform required at the local level.
These take the form of both archaic impediments and bureaucratic/cultural hangovers (just think about the meaningless process of having one’s hand luggage tagged, stamped and checked at three different points at any Indian airport, none of which fulfil a security purpose) and, still, a lack of English language skills in middle and lower service sectors. It was only by being exposed to local entrepreneurs at the front line of business in Ahmedabad that I became aware of any of these issues.
As some explained to me when I lamented the lack of assistance I received just trying to obtain accurate directions at Mahatma Mandir, it was pointed out that personnel with adequate skills in English or any other foreign language to assist me would not be standing around assisting visitors – rather, they would be rapidly promoted to higher levels within their organisations, leaving such roles to less skilled persons (thus defeating the whole point of properly servicing an event that is promoted as a global gathering).
Third, I was overwhelmed by the range of cultural experiences and the amount of hospitality shown during my week in Ahmedabad. Having now experienced many hotels in India, by comparison I believe the staff at the Four Points Sheraton was the best I have encountered in terms of initiative and service. But more importantly, I didn’t realise Ahmedabad was going to give me a “complete India” experience – from the international kite festival as a last-minute invitation on top of the terrace roof of a family I just met, to a private meeting with Bollywood star-now-BJP politician Paresh Rawal, to the range of places of worship for many religions and lifestyles, to the wonder of the world that is the Adalaj step well, amazing thali, not to mention the great shopping – I would highly recommend Australians take the short flight from Mumbai rather than confine themselves to the typical Delhi-Agra-Jaipur golden triangle.