NEW YORK — When New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman looks at India and China, he sees two “six-lane superhighways.”
On China’s side of the road, Friedman explained at a panel Monday hosted by the Yale Club of New York, traffic is moving at 80 miles per hour on a nicely maintained, well-lit surface — but there’s a speed bump called political reform on the horizon that threatens to knock the wheels off China’s cars.
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India’s highway, on the other hand, has a lot of potholes, and the sidewalks are cracked. Off in the distance, however, it appears to smooth out into a perfect, pothole-free stretch of asphalt. The question for India, Friedman said, is whether this is a mirage or a true oasis.
Participants in the panel, which examined India’s trajectory on the 60th anniversary of its independence, agreed with Friedman that while the country looks poised to become a major world player in the next few decades, its ascendancy is by no means assured. Though the panelists debated the specifics of what must be done to keep India on the “right” track — and what precisely the right track is — each identified areas in which India needs to make concrete improvements.
The panelists, a mix of scholars, political figures and business leaders, convened for “India 2050: A Grand Strategy for India Rising” as part of the Incredible India@60 campaign sponsored by the Indian government and the Confederation of Indian Industry.
During two hours of discussion, they named education, infrastructure, economic development and the environment as some of the most important priorities for India in the coming years.
But even as India copes with its internal challenges, its rapidly growing economy — which economist Roopa Purushothaman ’00 projected will become the third largest in the world by 2050, after China and the United States — and booming population mean the world needs to take note, panelists said.
“This is not about India in isolation, but about India becoming a global story,” said Purushothaman, the chief economist and strategist of the India-based Future Group.
On the education front, India is not doing enough to maintain the quality of its universities, Indian historian and author Ramachandra Guha said. He said the falling level of higher education in India has caused an exodus of young Indians to American universities like Yale and Harvard.
Yale President Richard Levin, who moderated the panel, said India’s decision to develop national universities in 30 states spread its resources too thin, unlike China, which has focused on seven universities.
But improving education is vital for the economy’s long-term health, panelists agreed.
Purushothaman said flaws in the current educational system prevent India from redistributing its labor force away from agriculture and into more skilled sectors, a transfer she called India’s “biggest obstacle” in the coming decades.
In terms of building up the necessary infrastructure, Purushothaman said, India lags far behind China. India’s local governments have more restrictions on their ability to tax and spend on infrastructure than China’s, she said, with the result that the people directly affected by infrastructure needs often feel powerless.
When discussing India’s high economic growth — 9.4 percent of GDP in 2006, compared to 2.9 percent GDP growth in the United States last year — the panelists engaged in a heated exchange about the reasons for India’s recent economic boom and whether foreign investment should be encouraged.
But former Mexican president and director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization Ernesto Zedillo said he thought the most important issue for the Indian economy was not foreign investment, but loosening the regulations governing Indian entrepreneurs.
“It’s not an issue of whether foreign investment is good or bad,” Zedillo said. “It’s an issue of whether the entrepreneur is really being allowed to flourish to the full extent. My answer is definitely not.”
Toward the end of the panel, Levin turned the discussion to the environment. He noted that a paradox exists in that as India modernizes, it needs to provide food, water, electricity and transportation to its rapidly growing population, which increases its contributions to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
But at the same time, Levin said, the world cannot combat global warming unless India participates in greenhouse gas-cutting schemes.
Friedman said the world would be in trouble if people in India start to emulate the high-energy consumption lifestyle of Americans, but added that no one will be able to achieve significant decreases in emissions until innovators come up with better products.
“My real message is, you cannot make a product greener without making it smarter,” Friedman said.
Amid the discussions of India’s booming economy, Guha reminded the other panelists that many observers did not expect India to survive — much less prosper — when it became independent in 1947.
“Over the last 10 years, the success story is economics,” Guha said. “The bigger success story over the long haul is democracy.”
Other panel participants included Yale economics professor T.N. Srinivasan and Infosys Technologies Ltd. co-chairman Nandan Nilekani.
Yale will host another Incredible India@60 event, a panel on “Women and Global Leadership,” on Tuesday.