South Asian countries have had the potential to do well for more than 40 years. But they have yet to deliver results in many areas.
What has gone wrong? What needs to be done? And by whom?
Setting a cat among the pigeons at a recent convention, Professor Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Singapore Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said the gap between India’s potential and its actual performance is huge.
If India’s population of over one billion could achieve only half of the per capita income of Indian immigrants in the United States, India’s GDP would be US$24.65 trillion (S$30.9 trillion) instead of a trifling US$1.85 trillion last year, a figure that is lower than Italy’s.
“India has a wonderfully open society – but as a nation, a very closed mind,” he said.
Imagine, lead and champion globalisation. Do not fear it, he told his audience.
Joining the debate, Indian business leaders said what was lacking in India was innovative and pro-active leadership in state governments.
States with these dynamic leaders were seeing good results. One example is the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Mr Shivraj Singh Chouhan. He personally visits interested investors in their offices, asking what he could do to help.
How the diaspora can kick-start South Asia’s much needed projects on the economy, infrastructure and education was discussed at a South Asian diaspora convention that ended last Friday. Organised by the Institute of South Asian Studies, it was held at Suntec Singapore.
Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, the keynote speaker, spoke about the emotional ties of the Indian diaspora. “It is said that you can take an Indian out of India, but you cannot take India out of an Indian.”
“Nowhere,” he continued, “is this more true than in Singapore. There is a Little India in Singapore.
“The sights, the sounds and the flavour of that sweet spot in this international city are almost totally Indian, even while the residents are genuinely proud of being citizens or long-term residents of Singapore.”
When the heart is willing, the head will follow, said speakers.
The combined wealth of Indians living abroad is US$1 trillion. They can help finance development projects, such as the US$1 trillion needed for a five-year plan for infrastructure projects.
Remittances by overseas Indians this year have already reached US$70 billion. Last year, remittances from overseas Pakistanis totalled US$14 billion, while overseas Sri Lankans remitted US$5 billion.
But South Asian countries have not yet been able to tap into this diaspora to help promote development in any systematic way.
Countries in this group often attract media attention for poor governance and corrupt practices.
The court system in India, for example, is notoriously slow. According to data from the Indian Supreme Court, a shocking total of 31.2 million cases were pending in India at the end of March 2012.
This backlog cannot be cleared swiftly as India has just 1.2 judges for every 100,000 people.
Some of these cases involve overseas investors whose projects have been slowed down or aborted because of court proceedings.
In a nation of 1.3 billion where politicians talk of inclusive growth, more than 300 million are dirt poor, earning wages incredulously below the US$1.5 million salary Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni earned in last year 2012 for a six-week season of the Indian Premier League.
The solution, some speakers said, is not to copy China’s model of economic growth. Chinese society is tightly controlled. India, on the other hand, is divided by religion, caste and community. If it tries to emulate the Chinese model it could lead to disorder.
The answer lies instead in decentralising power and giving more autonomy to states to plan and deliver.
Billionaire Anand Mahindra, chairman and managing director of the Mahindra Group, extended the idea.
If Singapore’s success is linked to its small size, he said, then the solution for India would be to weave a web that is the equivalent of a thousand Singapores, where the problems of land and transport are resolved at the local level.
India must find templates for building small cities. What India needs is jamun. This is an ingredient in yogurt that, when added as a starter culture to milk, helps to form new yogurt.
“Jamun is the catalyst for change and jamun is what India needs now” he said.
Non-governmental organisations at the convention spoke of the power of linking the South Asian diaspora to their homeland through community projects.
Ms Sarah Hashwani from Pakistan runs Plan Bee, a project that has trained women bee-keepers to improve their skills. With more money, the women have been able to pay for their children’s education, she said.
Bangladeshi novelist Tahmima Anam writes novels with wrenching themes of patriotism and how Bangladeshi workers are transforming the state’s economy.
Change will be forced upon South Asian countries by the growing middle class and an increasing use of technology, said several speakers.
For Mr Mahindra, however, it is the young who are going to change South Asia. He met students from the Global Indian International School, who attended the convention.
Before his talk, Mr Mahindra asked them what India meant to them. They replied in unison: “Home.”
“I told them, ‘You are the new X-men. Educated and vibrant, you will change India,'” he said.