India is not understood in Australia – China continues to hold our national imagination. Our myopia on India is a problem because within ten years India is tipped to become the third largest economy in the world.
Multiple cliched views of India dominate – slums (despite millions lifted out of poverty), public sector corruption (despite serious advances through use of IT) and the so-called Hindu fundamentalism of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (despite four years of relative communal stability).
How does Australia get India so wrong? Our media influences our national perspective on India, and recent coverage of developments in the holy city of Varanasi (The sacred as strategy, The Age, 9 April) shows how we focus on cliché and miss the big picture. The article branded development in this city as Modi’s move to “insert religion into the centre of the political debate”.
So, what is happening in India and why should Australia care?
Four things are important for Australia – India’s investment growth, rising local consumption, over a decade of around 7% economic growth per year and governments (central and 29 states) awash with money due to the GST.
As a result, every part of this country is being transformed and demand is rising for products and services of the type Australia is good at. By contrast, our trade with India is stagnant – if not for rising numbers of Indian students, trade would be in decline. Clearly, we are missing something.
What is the real picture in Varanasi? Sure, as reported a major new promenade is being built – as much as anything to enhance the tourism appeal of this great city. Branding it as driven by a religious view is as silly as claiming tourist development around Uluru is “divisively pro-indigenous”.
But the bigger picture is far more interesting. Varanasi is just one of one hundred “smart cities” being developed across India, with new roads, freeways, cleanliness, sewage treatment, trade and convention centre, traffic management and more upgraded within five years. Located on the banks of the River Ganges, the city will also become a multi-modal river and road transport hub, supporting local industry.
Varanasi is preparing for a 25 per cent growth in tourist numbers, fuelled by a combination of India’s middle class and international visitors.
To see this as promoting “a distinctly Hindu state” displays a stubborn refusal to see the bigger picture in India. What is happening here is happening across India.
Just look at tourist numbers for the Taj Mahal, India’s best-known symbol of Muslim India rule – located in Agra, another city having infrastructure upgrades as part of the Modi Government’s Smart City program. In the last year there were approximately five million tourists, of which 4.5 million were Indians of all beliefs. This weight of numbers demands infrastructure upgrade, and the Taj Mahal and Varanasi are examples of many across the country.
Indians are becoming more interested in their own history and they can afford travel. It makes no sense to link this to some divisive religious plot.
International yoga day is another example of Indians promoting and being confident about their heritage – celebrated in countries around the world with many millions in the west now more interested in yoga. That yoga grew within Hindu India is incidental.
Australia should know how much India is changed – we have just taken our first delivery of railway carriages made in India for Sydney’s public transport upgrade. Modi’s “Make in India” program is working.
Health is improving – a new study shows that the lives of 50,000 Indian children have been saved through a measles vaccination campaign run between 2010 and 2013.
We know a lot about the generosity of Bill Gates, but Indian tech billionaire Azim Premji has just given away US$21 billion to philanthropy, becoming the biggest endowment in Asia – our region.
At a BDO “Improving Business with India” seminar last month I tongue-in-cheek explained rapid change in India by launching my “India Shopping Mall Index”. Here goes – there were 3 shopping malls in India in 1999 – just 20 years later there are over 350 malls and another 85 in the pipeline.
The Indian Finance Minister has estimated India will have a middle class of around 600 million by 2030 when it becomes number three economy in the world.
All of this is exciting news for Australia – we would know about these great changes and opportunities if we avoided the old cliched views of India. If we continue to view India though a prejudiced lens, we will see only what we look for – such as Modi and Hindu nationalism or the poverty of slums – and we will miss the great changes that offer real possibilities for us.
Within our volatile and changing region, India could become our most important friend – but right now we are looking at India with blinkers on.
Stephen Manallack is a blogger at IntoIndia.blog and former President, Australia India Business Council (Victoria)
The above article was submitted to The Age on Tuesday 9 April – not yet published.