At World Economic Forum, Indian Business Elites Fret Over Their Country’s Future Growth

At the World Economic Forum summit in the environs on New Delhi, a TIME-sponsored panel explored how India's economy can be reinvigorated and made more inclusive in the decades to come

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Manish Swarup / AP

Bajaj Auto India Chairman Rahul Bajaj, second from right, speaks to a delegate during the World Economic Forum in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, on Nov. 7, 2012.

Is India over its snub in the last U.S. presidential debate, when neither candidate mentioned the world’s largest democracy and a crucial regional partner? Maybe not, if the last few days at the World Economic Forum (WEF) outside New Delhi is any indication. Neither the news of President Obama’s re-election nor the opening of China‘s Communist Party Congress generated much buzz at the meeting of Indian minds this week, and what little comment there has been has come at the prodding of panel moderators reporters looking for soundbytes. “We congratulate Mr. Obama on his reelection,” Anand Sharma, India’s trade minister, said after being asked about it by a moderator. “Given the challenging the background [in the world today]…. expectations of people from their leaders are very high.”

That’s equally true in India, and that’s probably a much better explanation for why other country’s affairs haven’t come up much in the past few days. India’s gathered business leaders, NGO heads and a handful of politicos have had other things on their mind, like India’s sliding growth, endemic corruption, anemic infrastructure, inefficient bureaucracy, scarcity of good jobs, growing censorship, lack of clear policy and glaring gender inequity, to name a few of the problems that have surfaced. Despite the recent spate of government reforms and reshuffles intended to disperse the pall that has hung over India this year, the discussions have consistently veered back to the question of why, exactly, India has strayed from the path of seemingly inevitable greater prosperity, and more importantly, who’s to blame. “I am a very proud Indian, but I am a very unhappy Indian today,” said Rahul Bajaj, head of Bajaj Auto, on Wednesday. “We are skilled and motivated workers, entrepreneurs and farmers who are raring to go,” he said, but “nothing is happening.”

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The dearth of government figures at the conference — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh opened the forum in 2009; this year it was Canada’s Stephen Harper — hasn’t helped counter concerns that the public sector in particular could be doing more to alleviate India’s gravest social ills. “The scale of the problems require the state to take ownership,” said Ramesh Ramanathan, chairman of Janalakshmi Financial Services (JFS). “This is ours to lose… What is frankly disappointing is that we don’t see [enough] leadership in the political class today.” Not surprisingly, that sentiment has been countered by the public officials in attendance. “We need to do things better. We cannot claim victory,” acknowledged Arvind Mayaram, secretary of the finance ministry’s Department of Economic Affairs, during a TIME debate on how to create more inclusiveness in India. But overall, he added, “I do not see any cause for pessimism as far as India is concerned.”

Though many here would disagree, a few clear exceptions to the gloomy vibe have emerged. The conference kicked off on Tuesday with a group of high-profile Indian companies, including Bajaj, Infosys, Godrej Industries, and Genpact, signing onto a WEF-sponsored anti-corruption initiative with the pledge to battle corruption in their businesses and supply chains. And while it had the whiff of some highly symbiotic p.r., it could also reflect what some here are saying: that civil society-led anti-corruption drives of the last two years are starting to pay off, if not by stemming the problem than at least by getting people to acknowledge it’s happening. “What I see in the last few months is a definite awareness by government that there are things that need to get done,” said Zia Mody, a Mumbai-based lawyer, during the TIME debate.

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Another thread to surface is how technology can help get India to where it wants and needs to go. Though India’s global tech expertise developed with an eye on the international market, players in both the public and private sectors are figuring out how to put those skills to work in everything from the fight against corruption with web sites like ipaidabribe.com, to getting teachers to show up to work in rural schools. “India is known for tech,” Neel Ratan, executive director of PricewaterhouseCoopers India, which has helped the government design several e-governance programs, said on Thursday. “Can we solve our problems with these skills?”

The work they’ve done so far is encouraging: For instance, an online program where people can file their income taxes has both helped taxpayers get automated returns in a timely manner and freed up thousands of civil servants to chase individuals who aren’t filing, a major problem in South Asia. It’s an example of the kind of public-private partnership that could help improve services to hundreds of millions of Indians living in parts of the country where the public sector is not as robust as it could be. “Information technology and some of the current developments in IT are an enormous opportunity in addressing some of [India’s] problems,” said David Thomlinson, the global head of geographic strategy and operations of Accenture, in TIME’s debate.

Getting broadband to the countryside won’t solve everything, but but the fact that no one actor can — and that civil society, government, business, and voters all have to do their part — is something that everybody here could agree on. “One model is not sufficient given the size of the problem,” Kris Gopalakrishnan, the executive co-chairman of Infosys, said on Thursday. “We need to try to different things… How can we all work together to make this happen?”

Watch TIME’s panel, moderated by Time Asia’s editor Zoher Abdoolcarim “Growth Beyond Numbers: How Can India Shining Be a Story for All?”: