'World can learn from India': G20 sherpa Amitabh Kant

A good G20 presidency is a function of the political and development narrative

42-AMITABH-KANT Amitabh Kant | Rahul R. Pattom

Q/ The G20 has come at a time when India has emerged as a global power.

A/ We are the fifth largest economy; by 2027, we should hopefully be the third largest. We have carried out structural reforms―Goods and Services Tax, Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act, lowering of the corporate tax, and reforms for ease of doing business.

We need to be far more ambitious and reform oriented. The Union government has done its bit. Now, reforms need to be carried out at the state level.

India has built 40 million houses, which is more than the population of Australia; 110 million toilets, which is more than the population of Germany; 223 million water connections, which is more than the population of Brazil. And 55,000 kilometres of roads.

One big [achievement] is the technological transformation, digitising India. Every Indian has an identity. We created 550 million bank accounts during 2015-17. We linked them up with Aadhaar and mobile. We do 46 per cent of the real fast payments in the world. A good G20 presidency is a function of the political and development narrative.

Q/ But the per capita income is lower than in many regions of the world. How do we address this problem?

A/ There is no reason why our per capita income should not grow, if we get into a high accelerated growth rate of 8 per cent plus over the next three decades. Japan grew at those rates, post World War II. Between the 70s and 90s both Korea and Taiwan grew at 9 per cent. Between 1990 and 2010, China grew at those rates.

We need to be far more ambitious and reform oriented. The Union government has done its bit. Now, reforms need to be carried out at the state level. India needs to fire on all cylinders. It is not just the services sector; you need to fire on urbanisation.

Q/ How did we choose the theme One Earth, One Family, One Future?

A/ The prime minister went back to the ancient Indian civilisational saying vasudhaiva kutumbakam. We are one family, one future. We may have different geographical boundaries, different political ideologies. But everyone comes from the same cosmic web. We should move away from our differences and work in a human-centric manner to uplift humanity.

Q/ The Ukraine crisis has loomed large over the G20. We have been unable to issue a joint communique in any of the ministerial meetings.

A/ We have issued outcome documents in all ministerial meetings. There has been an agreement on development issues. The difference of opinion has been with reference to only the Bali para―that is Para 3 and 4. Now there is an agreement on Para 4, broadly. Para 3 still left. There is a difference of opinion only on one para.

Q/ On Russia...

A/ On Russia, Ukraine. We will sort it out during our presidency.

But what is important for us is to deliver growth that is strong, sustainable, inclusive; to accelerate the implementation of sustainable development goals (SDGs). Only 12 per cent of SDGs have been fulfilled.

What is important for us is climate action and climate change; green development; restructuring and reforming of multilateral development institutions which were built in the post World War II period. They have outlived their utility. They were not designed for climate change or for SDGs.

Technological transformation, and digital public infrastructure, women empowerment and gender equality have been our priorities. These are the issues of developing and emerging markets. We have emerged as the voice of the Global South.

Q/ How important was it to hold a G20 tourism track in Kashmir?

A/ It was very important because we had decided to hold G20 meetings in every state. We conducted meetings in 60 cities. In Kashmir, it was a resounding success. We were able to demonstrate the soft power of Kashmir, its warmth and its great hospitality. We were able to demonstrate that law and order is fine. It has led to a huge revival of tourism in Kashmir.

India Kashmir G20 Meeting Warm welcome: G20 delegates attending a tourism meeting enjoy boat ride at the Dal Lake in Srinagar | AP

Q/ Everyone is looking at India and then, we have the violence in Manipur and Nuh. Did this dent India’s image?

A/ I don’t think anyone ever raised this issue. We don’t allow domestic issues to spill over into an international forum.

Q/ The Bali declaration talks about digital finance. It talks about data flows across countries in an inclusive, humanistic, empowering manner. We are also looking at cross-border payments. How do you see it play out when there is distrust between America and China, between India and China, and between the west and Russia.

A/ In the last two decades, all tech innovations have come from Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple in the west. In China, they have come from Tencent and Alibaba. They took over citizens’ data and used it for artificial intelligence and machine learning. India created an alternative methodology―open source, open API, interoperable models, where the public interest layer was created. On top of it, we allowed the private sector to innovate. India is the only country where PhonePe competes with Google Pay; Paytm competes with WhatsApp. In the market space, 40 different apps competing.

During India’s presidency, we demonstrated the power of digital public infrastructure (DPI) that India has built up. What we built up is really enormous―DIKSHA and SWAYAM, DigiLocker. We were able to do 2.2 billion Covid vaccinations. The citizen’s data is controlled by the citizen; he gives consent to transfer the data. This is unique. This is the model for the rest of the world.

The definition of DPI and the framework for DPI have now been accepted in the G20. The world has realised that, for the first time, a unique tech innovation has come from an emerging market. This will take us really far.

Q/ There is talk about there being some sort of a model or a governance body.

A/ Since the definition and framework have now been decided, we need to create a centre of excellence which will drive it. In the world today, four billion people do not have a digital identity, two billion people do not have a bank account, and 133 countries do not have fast payments. If the world has to benefit from what India has done, we need to transfer technology to the developing and emerging countries in the South.

Q/ Climate change is part of the G20 mandate. Climate finance is a polarised issue. The west has not delivered so far. How do you see this play out?

A/ We are committed to climate action. [But] we are not responsible for carbonising the world.

What we are talking about in the Leaders Declaration is not merely climate action, but also climate finance, circular economy, critical minerals, and about ending plastic pollution.

Q/ There are reports that Mumbai and other cities may be submerged by 2070. Have we taken this seriously?

A/ The blue economy is a very serious issue. It cuts across national boundaries. We are going to have huge plastic in the oceans. It is important that we all clean our oceans, our beaches. Ending plastic by 2040 is a key goal in the G20. We have said that every country must enact a law to that effect. Ocean cleaning will have to be a very important component of the G20.

Q/ President Joe Biden is committed to climate change. President Donald Trump was not. If Trump comes back in 2024―does that worry the G20?

A/ That doesn’t worry me right now. The US is committed to accelerated action on climate change. The important thing to understand is that different countries are at different levels of growth. There are national circumstances. The developing countries, which are most vulnerable to climate change, have not contributed to carbonising the world. The western countries, while industrialising, occupied all the carbon space. It was agreed in Copenhagen in 2009, in the name of climate justice, that they will contribute $100 billion a year to the developing countries, which has not been lived up to.

The other key challenge is private sector flows. There is no shortage of resources in the world. There is $350 trillion available; $150 trillion with pension funds and institutional investors. [But] that money, to flow in, has to be de-risked. For enabling private sector resources to flow in, in addition to $100 billion and a new cap to be fixed, the multilateral institutions must play a key role.

Q/ At the G20 summit in 2016, they said that by 2030, they would achieve these sustainability goals. With three themes. One, to promote strong, sustainable and balanced growth; second, to protect the planet from degradation, and third, further cooperation with low-income and developing countries. Has there been progress?

A/ There has been progress. But the ambition has to be to reach reduction of 1.5 degrees centigrade by 2050, which would mean that the developed countries should really advance that goal by a minimum 10 years. They should do it by 2040.

If they advance it, they allow more resources to flow because the developing countries need both technology and resources. This can only come from developed parts of the world. For that to happen, the multilateral financial institutions, which are not designed for climate action and SDGs, will have to be restructured. This is what a committee headed by N.K Singh and Larry Summers is recommending in its reports in our presidency.

Q/ This restructuring will take great political will. Do you see this happening? Now the World Bank has Ajay Banga as president, who has also been committed and had said the same things.

A/ He has talked about bigger and better banks. We entirely agree that bigger and better banks are necessary. But the bank must be able to raise resources from the private sector. It has to play on not just its balance sheet, but the global balance sheet. Because its own resources are limited, it does only direct lending. It should be able to do far more indirect lending, and get a lot of blended finance to allow resources to flow in. That is important to our mind. That is where the report of Larry Summers and N.K. Singh will help us to ensure that there is more of indirect lending taking place.

Q/ What do you think G20 of India will be remembered for?

A/ One of the key achievements of India will be that we would have played a key role in the African Union becoming a permanent member. The prime minister has written and talked to all the leaders. It will be about making the focus of our presidency leaving no one behind. We will speak as the voice of the developing countries throughout our G20.

Q/ Do you think the prime minister has been able to change the perception of the way the world looks at India?

A/ He has. He has created a brand equity of India, of a country which is rapidly developing. In 2014, we were at 10th position; we have gone to the fifth position. He has created an image of a country which is technologically very powerful; focused on infrastructure development, focused on massive benefits [for] the citizens. His personal equation with all the top leaders in the world has been outstanding.

Q/ India has been a pioneer in startups. It is also a new working group that India has introduced in the G20. But according to the latest economic survey, there have been concerns about the economic environment for startups. What are the challenges?

A/ When we launched the Startup India movement, there were 156 startups. Today, we have over a lakh. We have about 110 unicorns. Resources may not be flowing in [adequately] because of the global financial architecture. But we are still getting $25 billion into startups per year, which is a lot. Indians need to fund Indian startups. Indian businesses need to pour resources into Indian startups.

India must get into deep tech and sunrise areas of growth―like advanced chemistry cell battery, electric mobility, mobile manufacturing, green hydrogen―where young startups will require resources. More important than that, insurance companies, pension funds, Indians must fund Indian startups.

Q/ India has put women and inclusivity centrestage. What India lessons are we hoping to teach?

A/ India has achieved digital transformation. When we started the Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojna, only 17 per cent of the women had bank accounts. Today, almost 72 per cent of the women have bank accounts. One study by the World Economic Forum says it will take 132 years to bring about gender parity. We need to do this in a decade and a half. What the prime minister is talking about, is putting women into positions of leadership; women-led development. This is why we brought women development, gender equality, at the centrestage. It has never happened before in G20. A very major component of our Leaders Declaration will be focused on this, including gender divide, how women look at climate change issues and labour force participation.

Q/ The mantle of G20 presidency is now firmly with the Global South. How do you think the Global South will interpret the G20?

A/ We have been the voice of the Global South. During our presidency, we have created a huge sense of confidence amongst the developing world. A similar focus needs to be sustained during Brazil’s presidency and South Africa’s presidency. And we will constantly remain at the forefront of this.

Q/ What if there is no joint communique? Would it be seen as a setback?

A/ What setback? We will have a joint communique on everything. If there is a challenge on the Ukraine para, it will not be our making. We did not do World War I. We did not do World War II. If there is a war going on somewhere, hold the countries which are responsible. They are responsible, not us. We will continue to drive the growth, development and the financial inclusion agenda.