From culture to coal imports: Why India matters


Storytelling from the ground up: The writers trip through India began in the South, in the historic heartland of the Cholas.

Storytelling from the ground up: The writers trip through India began in the South, in the historic heartland of the Cholas.

I HAVE been spending time in India and even though I can’t speak Tamil, its mellifluousness is a part of my childhood memories, along with black-and-white MG Ramachandran movies, dosai, sambar and coconut chutney.

So when I began my travels, I knew that I had to start in the south, in the historic heartland of the Cholas, only to discover to my disappointment that the veshti (dhoti) had long been supplanted by stretch jeans and chinos.

Now, India is many things: often concurrently. It’s cacophonous and crazy – a mélange of Flipkart, Ola taxicabs, Ranveer Singh rapping in Hindi, caste prejudice and bygone eras. You’ll find Adivasi (or tribal peoples), the Dalits, Sufi Muslims, Jats and Brahmins: all somehow coexisting and yet also in conflict.

There are temples and shrines everywhere – honouring gods and deities – but none more important than Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu, the Preserver and Shiva, the Destroyer. It’s also the land of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – echoes of which have reverberated across South-East Asia. And on the Ganges plain, you can trace the life and death of the Buddha.

Of course, there are many other creeds and religions that have left behind layer upon layer of faith, belief and practice: a dizzying world of temples, churches, synagogues, mosques and shrines.

So as I’ve negotiated a patchwork of languages from Urdu to Bengali, Marathi and English – I’m forever aware of the shadows of those who’ve passed before me.

But my journey isn’t just about religion and culture, language or history. I’ve come to explore an often-misunderstood giant – an economic presence that is fast-becoming an engine of growth for South-East Asia, if not the world.

India’s US$9.449 trillion (RM38.711 trillion) economy (currently the third-largest in purchasing power parity terms) and a 7.3% GDP growth rate (the fastest among the G20 nations) means this ignorance must end.

Moreover, according to United Nation sources, India will surpass China to become the world’s most-populous nation by 2024, hitting an unprecedented 1.5 billion people by 2030. In fact, some Indian states are as large as individual Asean nations: Uttar Pradesh in the north with 224 million and Maharashtra in the centre with 120 million respectively are comparable with Indonesia and the Philippines.

Growing country: India will soon surpass China to become the world’s most populous nation – predicted at 1.5 billion by 2030.
Growing country: India will soon surpass China to become the world’s most populous nation – predicted at 1.5 billion by 2030.

Middle-class numbers have also sky-rocketed. Two University of Mumbai academics, Sandhya Krishnan and Neeraj Hatekar, argued in a 2017 paper that the middle-class has almost doubled from 304 million in 2004-5 to 604 million in 2011-12, though they acknowledge that much of this growth has been among the lower middle-classes.

This, in turn, has sparked a huge boom both in urban and rural India as demand for fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs) have mushroomed. Given that palm oil is a key input in most FMCGs, India has understandably become the world’s-largest palm oil consumer and importer – some 8.7 million tonnes in 2018.

Few people realise that Indian natural resource imports (including 31.5 million tonnes of coal per annum) now mean that our neighbour, Indonesia, enjoys its largest trade surplus (US$8bil or RM32.772bil) with India.

Tourism is another area of pent-up demand. The World Tourism Organisation predicts that India will produce some 50 million outbound travellers by 2020 – a figure that is expected to grow 10%-12% annually.

There are many new air routes between Indian cities and Asean. In fact, I’m planning on departing on the local low-cost carrier Indigo – from Varanasi to Bangkok – later in the month.

Also, a few weeks ago I was on a nonstop, 7.5-hour Garuda flight from Mumbai to Denpasar. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that India’s outbound tourism expenditure will reach US$28.06bil (RM115bil) by 2028.

Booming growth: Indias economy is the fastest growing of the G20 nations. Its infrastructure is slowly growing to match the rise.
Booming growth: India's economy is the fastest growing of the G20 nations. Its infrastructure is slowly growing to match the rise.

India is also the Philippines’ great competitor for business process outsourcing, a service industry that is worth well over US$23.8bil (RM97.51bil) per year to the archipelagic nation. However, as advances in artificial intelligence threaten to wreak havoc on the Philippines’ lucrative in-bound voice (call centre) business, India’s core strengths in software writing, IT and engineering look set to cushion the impact on the southern tech-cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad.

While current Asean-India trade and investment barely matches Chinese levels, growing concern about the Middle Kingdom’s strategic ambitions have made it imperative for South-East Asians to expand their knowledge of the subcontinent and deepen their ties with Indian elites – both political and business.

Essentially, if we are tired of “Emperor” Xi Jinping, then we need to start looking for alternatives!

However, with an election expected by June, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) Prime Minister, Narendra Modi – a man of vast ambition and immense energy – is set to face a tough, uphill battle to retain power for a second term. Indeed, the former Chief Minister of Gujarat has managed the unimaginable – uniting the disparate opposition against Modi and his extreme, conservative and sectarian Hindutva policies.

At the same time, there are cracks in his economic record, as questions abound over job creation (or is it destruction?), rural incomes, environmental degradation and recent allegations of high-level corruption. A round of legislative assembly elections in November last year saw an anti-incumbent swing in former BJP strongholds – Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

Patchwork of cultures: India is many things and all at once. Coexisting in perpetual chaos and conflict.
Patchwork of cultures: India is many things and all at once. Coexisting in perpetual chaos and conflict.

To what extent are we in South-East Asia aware of the forces now at work in Delhi and across the subcontinent as regionalism – the interests of provincial heavyweights such as the Telangana Rashtra Samithi – becomes the dominant factor in electoral calculations?

Do we understand the key players – like the fifth-generation scions of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Rahul and Priyanka? What about the two extraordinarily forceful women from Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal: Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee respectively, who disdain Modi and the Nehru-Gandhis in equal measure?

If you’re interested to learn more about India’s promise, I will be exploring the subcontinent from a uniquely South-East Asian viewpoint.

India has featured very heavily in South-East Asia’s past.

It certainly matters to our present.

And with China becoming increasingly heavy-handed, South-East Asia desperately needs India to play a larger role in our future – economics and business is just the beginning.