I am always inspired by travelling overseas. One of the great privileges of being a Member of Parliament is the access that it provides for meeting leading politicians and business people all around the world.
At a time on 1 January when many of my constituents were still nursing hangovers I was making my way to Heathrow Airport to fly out on a nine day trip to India. It was my second visit to the country in the past two and a half years and what fascinated me was how much things had changed. I travelled to Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay) and the beautiful city of Jaipur in Rajasthan.
Visiting India two years earlier there was a growing self confidence amongst its people with an enthusiasm for entrepreneurship in its cities that promised well for the nation’s future. Its core institutions, an independent judiciary and free press, alongside a commitment to education and free market economies are anchored by roots more than half a century old and most importantly, India has a firm adherence to democracy, based on a secular society.
Once again it was impossible not to be energised by India and the Indian people – the sheer mass of humanity, the busy bustle of every large city and the persistence with which street salesmen harass you in order to sell. It is a truly wonderful country and in Delhi I met with leading political figures from the governing party (who had been in opposition at the time of my previous visit in 2003). They spoke with growing confidence about India’s place in the world. In particular there was appreciation that relations between India and its nearest neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are the best they have been for decades. I know that many of my constituents back home will rejoice hearing that news.
In Bombay, now one of the leading international business hubs, there was a real sense of confidence amongst business leaders for the future of this economic powerhouse. The spirit in the capital, Delhi, was undoubtedly more upbeat than it had been on my previous visit. Perhaps this is unsurprising ? since the turn of the century there has been an average of a 7% annual growth rate in India, an expansion in the economy second only to the other regional super power, China.
While growth is good the country is taking great care that it does not follow the sometimes boom and bust economic models of the United States and many European nations. India is aiming to invest in clean technology to fuel its developments to avoid the environmental pitfalls the western world has fallen into whilst pursuing relentless growth. The country has already embarked on a path of sustainable development without waiting for assistance from the west – quite an important consideration with the current increase in oil prices.
India has also achieved proper recognition as an economic star in the ascendancy. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have visited the country in the last year or so and have wasted little time in promoting the cause of India to those British businesses wishing to invest in this country of 1.1 billion people whose population is rapidly expanding.
Statistics put forward by Goldman Sachs seem to point to a robust, high growth Indian IT industry in the future. India’s knowledge-worker population grew to 650,000 software and service professionals in 2003-04 from 6800 in 1986. It is predicted that India’s IT workforce could grow to 2million in 10 years.
True, much of the rural part of India (where the majority of citizens still live) exists in grinding poverty. Even in the wealthy fast developing cities you never entirely escape from evidence of political poverty but there is strong evidence that the wealth being created in India is trickling down. One commentator reckons that some 20 million people are joining the ranks of the middle classes in India each and every year. This is providing a massive boost to the cause of globalisation as so many more people have a stake in the vast growing trade that India undertakes with other nations across the globe.
As part of a ten strong parliamentary delegation, we were looked after wonderfully by our hosts, the Indian government and the Confederation of Indian Industry (equivalent to the CBI in this country). There was one small frustration from the trip again because so many people wanted to meet us and tell us about the success story in India that it meant we had little time to view the tourist sites!
From gem factories in Jaipur where we saw some of the most exquisite broaches and rings being manufactured to the ever bustling Bombay Stock Exchange (where share prices have risen threefold in the last two years), the people of India are rightly proud of the economic success story that their country has become in recent years.
We were lucky in Jaipur to visit a number of community projects as well as Jaigarh’s large fort which looks down on the valley and provides great defence for Rajasthan’s great “pink” city. Standing high at the top of the fort is the Jai Ban, the largest cannon in the country. Apparently the power of the cannon is so awesome that it has only ever needed to be used on one occasion in the 250 years since its smelting – a sign of fine antiquity in a young energetic and optimistic country with a strong eye on the future.