255 / April 26, 2024

G20 Sherpa Amitabh Kant On UPSC, Working With PM Modi, Incredible India & Amrit Kaal

62 Minutes

255 / April 26, 2024

G20 Sherpa Amitabh Kant On UPSC, Working With PM Modi, Incredible India & Amrit Kaal

62 Minutes
Listen on

About the Episode

This week’s episode is about the UPSC, Working With PM Modi, Incredible India & Amrit Kaal as we welcome G20’s Sherpa, Amitabh Kant to the Neon Show!

Will Next 25 Years Be India’s Amrit Kaal?

Heterogeneity In India: Challenge or Opportunity?

What Are The Biggest Inequalities That India Currently Faces?

His Message To The Youth Of India!

All these juicy topics and more in this COMPELLINGLY DETAILED conversation about how much India has grown over the last 60 years and what the country’s future plans are to become the world’s largest superpower… Tune in NOW!

Watch all other episodes on The Neon Podcast – Neon

Or view it on our YouTube Channel at The Neon Show – YouTube

[Amitabh Kant] (0:00 – 0:27)


India needs to grow at 9 to 10 percent per annum year after year, year after year for three decades so that we can make India a fully developed nation. Today in 30 seconds and one minute you can take out an insurance policy, you can open a bank account, you can do a stock transaction in 30 seconds. Bank of International Settlements said that actually India has achieved in nine years what would have taken India 50 years to achieve.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (0:27 – 0:35)

But there’s a constant tussle between the center and the state. I don’t want to go into politics but let’s say the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, he’s in jail for XYZ reasons.


[Amitabh Kant] (0:35 – 0:53)


There is no politics in development. As soon as I reached the Government of India, within a month, the Twin Tar blast happened in New York. Our parliament was attacked. The Afghanistan war happened, and tourism lagged behind. Peak of the crisis we launched the incredible India campaign. That campaign led to the revival of tourism in India.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (0:54 – 0:57)

Sanjeev Sanyal sir mentioned in our podcast that UPSC is a waste of time.


[Amitabh Kant] (0:57 – 0:58)

I do not agree.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (0:59 – 2:22)

Hi, this is Siddhartha Ahluwalia, your host at Neon Show. I’m also co-founder of Neon Fund, a B2B SaaS fund that invests in the most enterprising B2B SaaS companies that come out of India and are building for the globe. Today’s episode focuses a lot on policy making.


What has happened in the last 10-20 years in India? What policies were created that are impacting a current generation now? And what are the policies that are getting created now that will impact yours, mine, and everyone’s future in India in the next 10-20 years?


Today I have with me Amitabh Kant. He is the G-20 Sherpa. He is the ex-CEO of Niti Aayog, which is the think tank of India.


And he’s the one who has interacted very closely with the Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, in the last 10 years to build the policy framework, the digital and the physical infrastructure for India. Stay tuned to this episode. Please subscribe to the Neon Show.


And I would like to thank our sponsors, Prime Venture Partners, for sponsoring the Neon Show. Hope you enjoy this episode.


I love your book, Elephant Moves, India’s New Place in the World.


Right? It has so many insights, what has historically happened and what’s going to happen in the future. And the next 25 years are the Amrit Kaal for India.


So would you shed your light on it? What does Amrit Kaal mean?


[Amitabh Kant] (2:23 – 3:49)

So, the ambition of India, as the Prime Minister has spelt out, is that we must become a developed nation. Yes. And in every country’s history, there is a period when there is growth, there is progress, there’s prosperity, there’s development, because the momentum is there for growth.


This happened in the case of Japan in the post-World War II period. This happened in the case of Korea later. This has happened in the case of Singapore.


This has happened in the case of Taiwan. And in recent times, China actually grew at very high rates for a three-decade period. So, India has grown at high rates, but it’s grown for a short period of 5 to 6 years.


India needs to grow at 9 to 10 percent per annum, year after year, year after year, year after year, for three decades, so that we can make India a fully developed nation. Now, when we say a fully developed nation, that means that not only should our GDP become $35 trillion, that’s not the objective alone, but the quality of life of citizens should improve. We have lifted in the last decade, we have lifted 25 million people above the poverty line, you know, 25 crore people above the poverty line.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (3:49 – 3:50)

Almost 250 million.


[Amitabh Kant] (3:50 – 3:51)

250 million people.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (3:51 – 3:52)


One-sixth of India’s population.


[Amitabh Kant] (3:53 – 4:29)


Yes, we have done that with 25 crore people.


Now, the challenge is that India’s per capita income must rise and that will happen if we are able to do consistent levels of growth over a long period of time. We need to maintain the momentum of reforms, of structural reforms. We need to accelerate the pace of infrastructure creation.


We need to get into new areas of growth. All this is very critical in the coming years.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (4:29 – 4:58)

So, I want to start with a little history that you mentioned in your book, like the parliament in the 1960s, right? Spent much time debating over the famine stock parts of the land. Like even at our dinner tables, the government told us to eat less rice, eat more wheat, cut out rice plates for dinners, have chapatis instead and the food habits of India changed, right?


And in West Bengal, the Congress chief minister said that, you know, to change the food habits of the Bengalis that, hey, cut down on sweets.


[Amitabh Kant] (4:58 – 4:58)



[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (4:59 – 5:17)

Right. And it irked Bengalis so much that instead of Congress in the state, they got the Communist Party. Right.


So, you mentioned, right, Marx may never advocate removing Rasgulla from the Bengalis.


[Amitabh Kant] (5:18 – 7:12)

No, actually, what has happened is we move from an era of great shortages. When I first came to Delhi to get a fixed telephone connection, I had to actually go to the telecom minister, get a special quota issued. There was a quota for LPG connection.


On everything, there was a shortage. So, we used to use political connections to get ministers, used to have quotas for telephone connections, even for cars, for LPG, for everything, there was a quota. So, we have moved a long way from an era of shortages to an era of prosperity.


And this has happened because we have unleashed production, we have unleashed productivity, we have opened up market economics.

And now, in the last 10 decades, I think the real transformational work to my mind, which has been done, is in digitizing India’s economy, because everybody has an Aadhaar. Between 2015, 2017, we created over 550 million bank accounts.


That means, imagine 55 crore bank accounts were opened in India. And then we linked up Aadhaar and mobile numbers with the bank account. And this enabled India to do fast payments.


So, actually, this mobile has now become the bank. All Indians do transactions through mobile, this is the bank. And India does 46 percent, 46 percent of the real-time fast payment in the world is done by India.


So, we are very far advanced in digitization.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (7:13 – 7:19)

And sir, this space has happened in just the last 10 years, all the digital infra.


[Amitabh Kant] (7:20 – 10:35)

So, what has happened in the last 10 years is that not only have we built, we’ve technologically not leapfrogged, but pole vaulted. And once you had created this infrastructure, people started doing fast payments. But you had a whole range of new startups who started giving credit based on payment history.


Then you had another set of startups, which started actually taking the stock market into the rural areas, tier-two, tier-three cities. So, if you look at Zerodha, GrowUpStock, they went to tier-two, tier-three cities. And then you had another set of companies, young startups, which started giving insurance.


So, today in 30 seconds and one minute, you can take an insurance policy, which in my time, when I was young, used to take me six months, seven months. You can open a bank account in 30 seconds. You can do a stock transaction in 30 seconds.


So, India has really jumped in digitization. But I think the big thing that’s happened is that what the Bank of International Settlements said, that actually India has achieved in nine years what would have taken India 50 years to achieve, 50 years to achieve. So, that is the digital story.

But I think the big thing that happened was infrastructure. Because if you look at it, we provided four crore houses.


4 crore people were given houses. That means that Australia’s population… We have given houses to that population. We have given toilets to 12 crore people. 12 crore people were given toilets. That means that we have given toilets to the entire German population.


We provided water to 25-25.5 crore people, which means that we provided water to the population of Brazil, the entire population.


And we made about 55,000 kilometers of roads, made highways, and about 3.5 crore people were provided electricity at home. So this shows that the infrastructure that has increased in the country in the last 10 years and India’s budget allocation of infrastructure, which we call CapEx spend, has increased from 1% to 4.5%. And because of that, we were able to do a lot in infrastructure. We did a lot in infrastructure. And this will really drive the growth momentum of India in the coming years.


And I think both the digital infrastructure and infrastructure are two big stories of India, which no other country in the world has done.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (10:35 – 10:48)

I completely agree with you, sir. I think India is the first country that leaped, frogged digital infrastructure by any means. And then now the physical infrastructure is equally catching up with the digital infrastructure.


[Amitabh Kant] (10:48 – 12:42)

So, I keep going abroad a lot. Look at the infrastructure of Europe. Our airports are better than Europe at the moment.


You look at the airport in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi Airport, Hyderabad Airport. These airports are better than Frankfurt or London Airport at the moment. And our roads are becoming better than the roads in Europe at the moment.


So, we have to take this momentum forward because infrastructure will give a lot of momentum if we want to increase growth by 9-10%. One more thing I would like to say, on which the Prime Minister has placed a lot of emphasis, apart from digital and infrastructure, is how we transition energy and how we become a green country. Because in the future, there will be a lot of focus on climate transition.


And energy transition will become a key area. And in this area too, we have produced about 187 gigawatts renewable energy. And we have given cooking gas connections to about 12 crore women.


And now the solar rooftop scheme has come. And in the future, the Green Hydrogen Mission has announced that we will use renewable energy, by cracking water, we will make green hydrogen. With which, now you see, we import 180 billion of fossil fuel energy.


Our aim in the Amrit Kaal, as the Prime Minister has said, is that by 2047, instead of importing, we will export clean energy. So, we will be an exporter of clean energy rather than an importer of 180 billion worth of fossil fuel.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (12:43 – 12:45)

And this is one of the biggest imports for us.


[Amitabh Kant] (12:45 – 12:47)

This is the biggest import for us.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (12:47 – 12:51)

And this is the reason that the economy got into deficit before 1991.


[Amitabh Kant] (12:51 – 13:59)

Absolutely. So, this book, The Elephant Moves, is a story of how India has transitioned radically in the last decade. Because it was said that this is an elephant, it will not turn, it will not walk.


Or it is impossible for the elephant to move. And will move very slowly. Someone said that this is the Hindu rate of growth of 3%.


So, this shows that if there is political will, and if there is administrative drive, then our growth will increase. We will have structural reforms. We will have digitization.


We will put a lot of quantum jumps in the field of energy. And I am happy that this government has done many futuristic things. Like quantum computing missions, artificial intelligence missions, or semiconductor missions.


These three missions that have been announced, are very forward and progressive missions that will take India forward.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (14:00 – 14:23)

Sir, we will take jabs in this podcast between the past and the future. And the same you have done in your book, The Elephant Moves, right. So, I want to spend one or two minutes on PC Mahalanobis.


His story, what are the things that he created? And what are the things that we have now discarded what he created and what are the things that are still there?


Up to you, sir.


[Amitabh Kant] (14:23 – 17:06)

So, when I came to the government in 1980, when I went to the government offices for the first time, everything was controlled. All licenses were issued. Everything you imported or exported was controlled.


And even to produce anything, you required a government license. So, that led to government officials becoming very powerful. There was no private incentive to produce.


And actually, the ministries became very powerful in terms of issuing licenses. It became a licensed Raj economy. So, we have gone from British Raj to licensed Raj.


From holding about 40% of the global GDP, we came down to 5% of the global GDP. By the time we became independent, which came down even further. And it’s only now that our share of global GDP has grown and expanded in recent times.


And that is why I believe that while the model of PC Mahalanobis may have been relevant at one particular time in our history, we need to move forward and we need to actually create a market-based economy where the private sector must drive India’s growth story. The government should only act as a facilitator. The government should only act as a catalyst.


And even when the government intervenes, like we are intervening in the production-linked incentive scheme, we are saying that the private sector must produce higher and higher and higher and higher and higher. For the next five years continuously, year after year after year after year. And only if they produce and are able to capture global markets and we are able to produce global champions, will the government support you through the production-linked incentive scheme.


So, the thinking now is make India easy, make India simple. So, the Prime Minister’s focus was that over the years we built up a lot of rules, regulations, procedures, paperwork. So, we scrapped a lot of paperwork, we scrapped a lot of regulations, we digitized everything.


And India is the only country which has scrapped over 1600 laws. No other country has done. So, outdated laws have been scrapped, we have digitized everything, we jumped up about 79 positions in the World Bank’s ease of doing business, and we made India easy and simple.


And now the next wave is to carry the same momentum to every single state of India.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (17:07 – 17:28)

And sir, one important thing I want to bring up right now, like Sanjeev Sanyal sir mentioned in our podcast that UPSC is a waste of time. The Union Public Service Commission was created by the British authorities in India and I think we are still building government officers on the same. You have been a UPSC IAS officer.


What’s your view on that?


[Amitabh Kant] (17:28 – 20:25)

See, there is a great sense of pride in working for India and with the government of India. So, there are a lot of Indians who want to work with the government. And they get a lot of job satisfaction.


I have worked for over 44 years and I think the extent of job satisfaction that I have got, the ability to do Kerala, God’s own country, to work with fishermen in Kerala, to work with incredible India in Delhi, to do Make in India, to do Startup India, to do Aspirational District Program and later to do the G20 as Sherpa. I could not have got anywhere else in the world, in any private sector of India or abroad. So, the government gives you a different job satisfaction.


It gives you the size and scale which you can never get in the private sector. But the private sector is very important. I am a believer that the government should act as a catalyst.


Government should handhold. Officers should handhold the private sector to make it grow. And they need to work in very close partnership with the private sector.


So, the point which Mr. Sanyal made, I do not agree with. I believe that a lot of people aspire to work for the government because they want to contribute to nation building. They want to contribute to nation development.


And that satisfaction you can never get anywhere else. But I also feel that the process of the UPSC examination needs to be re-looked at so that people do not end up wasting 10 years of their life. We can have a GMAT format of examination which can then enable them to give the main examination if you have cleared that once.


You need not give the preliminary exam again and again. But that is something which the UPSC and Department of Personnel can examine. Whether the exam should be structured in a manner where within a period of once you have cleared the GMAT you can give the main exam and that’s a possibility so that people do not end up wasting a lot of, many years of their productive life for this.


That’s all I would say. But UPSC clearance is for working for the government. And governments give you the scale of transformation, the ability to transform your country, the ability to transform, bring in policies, the ability to make a difference at the grass root level.


That level of satisfaction with integrity, with honesty you can never get anywhere else.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (20:25 – 20:46)

Do you think the role of a government officer and IAS officer has changed over a period of time? For example, it’s been shown in the media that IAS officers of the last few years were very restricted by whoever is the government and do the working style of IAS officers become more independent and more free over a period of time?


[Amitabh Kant] (20:46 – 22:25)

So the content has transformed because the nature of governments have changed. India has changed. India has redefined itself.


India is a far more growth and prosperous country now. So the challenge, when I was a district collector, I did not know whether my district had changed. However hard you worked, data was not available.


When I did the aspirational district program, it is possible to get data on your mobile on a real time basis now. So you can govern much better based on data. You can make districts compete on data.


You can know the learning outcomes, the health outcomes, the nutritional standard. Everything can be today based on data for governance. You can make a massive difference on a real time basis.


That was not possible earlier. Secondly, you are not in the period where you have to control. You are not in a period where you have to issue licenses.


You are in a period where you have to bring in predictability and consistency of policy. You are in a period where you have to encourage the private sector. You are in a period where you have to assist and facilitate the private sector.


We are in a period where we have to transform India at the grassroot level. We are in a period where we have to make a difference to the lives of citizens by improving learning outcomes, health outcomes. And I think that is the difference now and then.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (22:25 – 22:49)

As a, from your book only right, want to know the story of how Maruti 800 at that point in time associated itself with the rise of middle class and how did India transition from let’s say gold spot to Coca Cola, Doordarshan to cable TV, Maruti to an array of automobiles to pick from and the Indian pilot began to see a variety of choices.


[Amitabh Kant] (22:49 – 25:13)

So, you know the aspiration of India at that period of time and I remember when Maruti came out, the aspiration of every single middle class Indian was to own a Maruti. And therefore it became the symbol of the middle class, of the growing and prospering middle class. But the middle class has grown in size and scale.


It’s almost 34% of India now. And since then you’ve seen a number of new cars come in. You’ve seen Tatas, you’ve seen Mahindras, you’ve seen Toyota, you’ve seen Hyundai.


Many other manufacturers come in and they’ve used India as a manufacturing base for exports to the rest of the world. And now the next big aspiration for every middle class Indian will be to own an electric vehicle. And actually today we are pushing for 100% electrification of two wheelers and three wheelers and we are pushing for greater electrification.


So what you will see in India in the coming years is a huge competition between Tesla coming into India, you will see Hyundai, you will see Maruti, but you will see in the Indian companies, you will see Tatas which has already taken the lead in electric vehicles. You will see Mahindra with a new EV platform. And therefore with all these new cars which will come in, India will become the most dynamic market.


We are already the biggest manufacturer of three wheelers. We are the second biggest manufacturer of two wheelers. We are the third biggest manufacturer of buses in the world and we are the fourth biggest manufacturer of cars in the world.


We export a lot. But the world is going through a disruption. The world is moving from combustion to electric vehicles.


And therefore India must take the lead. We must become not merely a consumer of electric vehicles but we should become an exporter of electric vehicles. And that means that you are moving from 2000 parts to 20 parts and you need to train your manpower and skills for the new revolution of electric mobility in the future.


Electric mobility will be clean, it will be cutting edge and it will drive the middle class of India in the future.

[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (25:13 – 26:01)

So since we are talking about the middle class, right, at present we are, as you said in your book, we are a lower middle class income country with prosperity levels around 2200 US dollars to 7200 dollars with purchasing parity. And we have an interesting journey where significant gains and challenges have happened over a piece of the years. The rupee has been devalued since 1991 and the country aims to attain an upper middle class position and the aspiration of the country is that we would be a 60 trillion dollar economy in the next, hopefully 25 years and the country would continue to grow at least 8 to 9 percent year on year.


[Amitabh Kant] (26:02 – 27:41)

So the important thing is that we need to have a consistent level of growth year after year, year after year. If we don’t grow on a consistent basis it’s not, it’s important that for this to happen, you need many states of India to become champions. You need about 12-13 states to grow at 10 percent.


Therefore, the next round of reforms have to be carried out by the states. You also need a lot of large companies, you need about, not just Adani and Ambani, you need 10,000 large companies in India because they will create the ecosystem for MSMEs, they will create SMEs, there will be backward-forward linkages and that is large companies are then able to penetrate global markets. So we need many, many more large companies to be able to penetrate global markets.


But in the next 3 to 4 decades we need many states of India to become global champions. We are seeing huge transformation in Uttar Pradesh in terms of roads, in terms of electricity, in terms of infrastructure. So UP is a very large state.


If it was a country, it would be the 5th largest economy in the world. You know, because of its population. And therefore, if UP transforms then India transforms.


If Bihar transforms, if Chhattisgarh transforms, if Jharkhand transforms, if Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, all of them start growing at high rates then India will be growing at 10 percent plus for the next 3-4 decades.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (27:42 – 28:19)

So it’s a very interesting thing that you know, now the reforms at center have been done. And now we are dependent on the states doing reform. But there is a constant tussle between the center and the state.


For example, you know, I don’t want to go into politics, but let’s say that the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, is in jail for XYZ reasons. And the Delhi state has to suffer because the leader is not governing the state. He is in jail.


So do you see this tussle to impact our level of growth, which you mentioned 10 percent year on year?


[Amitabh Kant] (28:19 – 29:21)

No, so the prime minister has believed in cooperative and competitive federalism. We have ranked states earlier. We have worked with the states very closely.


NITI Aayog worked very closely. We started ranking states on a range of areas. Education, health, water management, ease of doing business, all these areas.


First year we did this. Gujarat came number one. Next year Andhra beat Gujarat.


Third year Telangana beat Andhra and Gujarat. But the good thing was that Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, which were 25th and 26th, came 4th and 5th. And therefore my view is that there is no politics in development. In development issues, we all work together, we cooperate, we compete, we make India grow, that is important. And I think we should work in the same spirit of cooperative and competitive federalism of one team India.

[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (29:21 – 29:37)

Sir, you mentioned the book, right? The highest GDP per capita is for Goa, Sikkim and Chandigarh and the lowest is for Bihar, Assam and Jharkhand. And Chhattisgarh is the next.


Sir, why is it so? What led to these states having such fast GDP and these states coming at the bottom?


[Amitabh Kant] (29:37 – 31:06)

So, two things. One is my belief that these are smaller states. Number two, the extent of urbanization is much more.


And it’s important that in more populous states, a very large percentage of our population is dependent on agriculture. So, if 40 to 42 percent of your population is dependent on agriculture in these states, you have very low paid jobs. You need to manufacture.


Very important to understand that manufacturing gives good quality jobs. But even if manufacturing is not there, there is good quality urbanization. Urbanization leads to good manufacturing.


Urbanization leads to better quality of jobs. And therefore, if you look at Uttar Pradesh, the Gautam Buddha Nagar, Noida and Greater Noida today, their GDP is 11 times higher, 11 times higher than the next district of Uttar Pradesh, which is Kanpur. So, manufacturing urbanization gives you better GDP or better growth, better quality of life, better per capita income than agriculture.


And we need to reduce the dependency on agriculture that is critical. And therefore, these states need to focus on manufacturing, they need to focus on skills, they need to focus on urbanization and that will drive their growth story for the future.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (31:06 – 31:16)

And sir, today, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, they are the most mineral rich states, as you have stated previously, right? Why have they remained poor?


[Amitabh Kant] (31:17 – 32:07)

I think the other point I want to make is that quality of governance is very important. Aspirational district program has shown us that it was not money, we were not providing a great amount of money, but we were providing good governance. If you are able to govern better, if you are able to give better quality of governance, then you are able to transform the lives of citizens.


You need people or young officers for a very long time, for a period of 10 years, 12 years, we need officers over a long period of time on the same job. If they remain there, then you are able to bring results. We need to ensure that we are able to fill up the posts of teachers, of doctors in the districts, you will see radical transformation.


It’s just nothing but good governance based on data.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (32:09 – 32:15)

And that is, I think, the system that you implemented at Niti Aayog, ranking states, ranking districts, right?


[Amitabh Kant] (32:16 – 33:01)

An aspirational district program, which the prime minister didn’t call backward, the prime minister called them an aspirational district. There are many districts, your viewers may not have even heard the name of Kifre in Nagaland or Ribhui in Meghalaya or Malkangiri in Orissa, they are very far flung districts, very, very far away. And no doctor, no teacher would go there, they would remain, posts would remain vacant, we got them all filled up.


And these districts on ranking completed and delivered and they gave us the results, which transformed the lives of citizens in India, 20%, 21% of the citizens living in these districts was transformed because of that.

[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (33:02 – 33:14)

So before we dive into the second part of the episode, I want to know your journey today, from an IAS officer to a technocrat to a thought leader, how that has shaped up in the last 44 years of service.


[Amitabh Kant] (33:15 – 35:06)

I started my career in a small town called Teleshiri in the Malabar region of Kerala, which is the northern part of Kerala. It was a very fascinating area and I was able to do some good work in terms of improving, which I felt was the lives of many people living in that area. Later, I worked with the traditional fishermen of Kerala for about four years as the CEO of what was a new organization called the Matsyafed and I was able to give new outboard motors, new crafts, fiberglass crafts, fishing nets, known as the disco nets to fishermen.


I introduced beach level auctions and I was able to improve the earnings of fishermen and I was able to introduce buses to take fisherwomen to the cities, so that they could sell, they could not able to carry their baskets in normal buses, so we introduced separate fisherwomen buses and this helped us to change the lives of fishermen. Later, I was made the Managing Director of the State Industrial Development Corporation and I realized that actually Kerala was, because of its labor strife, many other challenges, while Kerala was not suited for industries, it was very ideally suited for tourism. So, I assisted and supported the tourism sector of Kerala and then I ran into some problems with the communist government and I was without a posting for about 10 months and as a punishment posting, I was posted in the tourism sector and nobody had heard of tourism then in Kerala.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (35:06 – 35:07)

This is which year sir?


[Amitabh Kant] (35:08 – 39:38)

This was about the early 90s and nobody had heard of tourism in Kerala and everyone used to go to Rajasthan or go to Kashmir and there was only one destination, the Kovalam beach. Now, I opened up the backwaters of Kerala, I brought back houseboats, I opened up Ayurveda, I brought back the traditional martial art of Kerala, Kalripet, I brought back the traditional architecture of Kerala and we brought back the traditional art forms of Kerala, Kathakali, Mohini Aatam, all these, Taiyam, all these, we differentiated Kerala from the rest of the world and we took it from $20 to a $500 destination.


And then one day, I got a call that the Prime Minister is the Principal Secretary to Kerala. The Prime Minister called me to say that the Prime Minister Mr. Atal Vajpayee will come to Kerala and he will stay there and he will not meet any politician but you make all arrangements and you be with him and for one week Mr. Vajpayee, I arranged his stay in Kumarakom in the backwaters of Kerala. He stayed there for about a week and I was with him and one day Mr. Brijesh Mishra, his secretary said that, told the Prime Minister that we should bring Amitabh Kant to Delhi.


So the Prime Minister asked me, have you applied for Delhi, for the Indian government? So I said no, I haven’t applied. He said, don’t apply. If you apply, then Brijesh Mishra will send you to women and child welfare instead of tourism. So that thing ended there. I applied after a year and a half.


I wanted to go to the finance ministry but there was no vacancy in tourism at that time. But they made me a vacancy in tourism and sent me there. And as soon as I reached the Government of India, within a month of that, the Twin Tower blast happened in New York. There was an attack on our parliament. And the Afghanistan war broke out and tourism fell very low. And our occupancy was only 10-15%.


So, that peak of the reforms, peak of the crisis, peak of the challenge, when there was very low occupancy, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, all had stopped their marketing campaign, we launched the Incredible India campaign. That campaign led to the revival of tourism in India, that led to the growth of India tourism and that led to a completely new momentum of new infrastructure, new airports being created. And after that, after tourism, I did Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, then I became the Secretary Department of Industrial Policy when this government came and at that time, ease of doing business was focused, make in India was focused.


The Prime Minister started Startup India, at that time there were only 156 startups, today there are about 125,000 startups, there are 115 unicorns. And then after that, when my term ended there, I became the CEO of Niti Aayog. The Prime Minister posted to me, he was the chairman of Niti Aayog.


I got the opportunity to focus on many new things. Artificial Intelligence, Electric Vehicles, and Aspirational District Program.


I was made the Sherpa of G20 after seven years in Niti Aayog. This was also a big challenge. And in this challenge, it was an opportunity to bring consensus together. And despite many challenges, India built up 100% consensus in the leadership of the Prime Minister on all major issues. And on Russia-Ukraine issues, which the UN could not discuss, we made a consensus and moved forward. And what India achieved by getting 100% consensus across every issue in the New Delhi leaders declaration was pivotal.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (39:39 – 39:44)

Sir, I want to ask you a secret, you are 68 but you hardly look like 50.


[Amitabh Kant] (39:44 – 39:50)


So, you are asking me if I look young because I…


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (39:50 – 39:52)

You look very young.


[Amitabh Kant] (39:52 – 40:39)

No, the reason I look young is because I… Look…I am always positive. I don’t have negativity. I don’t listen to negativity. I believe in positivity and optimism. I believe in exercise. I play and exercise for 1.5 hours every day. I have my time at 6.30 am and I only exercise.


I think that at night, whatever food you want to eat, you should eat less and eat at 6.30-7.00 pm. I work on these three basic philosophies.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (40:40 – 40:44)

You are so young at heart, you are almost speaking every day at a public forum.


[Amitabh Kant] (40:44 – 41:10)

No, no. I believe that you have to keep your mind alert, you have to be active, you have to…

I am interested in the new technology transformation and changes that are happening. I track major international developments, pursue them and follow up with them.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (41:10 – 41:13)

Sir, have you ever invested in startups?


[Amitabh Kant] (41:13 – 41:26)

I have not invested because I used to deal with startups. So, investing in startups was not right. But I motivate everyone, I mentor them and many start-ups take my advice and I interact with them continuously.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (41:28 – 41:38)


And sir, now coming back to some parts of the book right, which I want to cover. You mentioned there are some levels of inequality in India, what are those?


[Amitabh Kant] (41:38 – 42:46)


Look what I believe is that if India aspires to grow at 9-10 %for three decades, then you need a huge focus on social sectors also, which is what has been the new education policy that has come out. We have brought in a huge amount of emphasis on health to health insurance. Or we have laid a lot of emphasis on nutrition now. All these are critical. And therefore, good governance must be brought in in some states, so that particularly states which are lagging behind, so that we are able to ensure that we grow with equity, which has been emphasized that growth with equity, growth with inclusion, and the digital transformation that has taken us forward should enable us to grow with equity in the future as well.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (42:47 – 42:54)

And sir, you have said this many times that every policy should only be created for five years, both at centre and state level.


[Amitabh Kant] (42:55 – 43:38)


My opinion is that there should be predictability and consistency of policy. And the transformation and disruption that is happening in the world, so much disruption that if you make a policy today, then it will constantly disrupt because innovation is much faster than the policy making. So it is important to constantly review what policy changes we need to bring. Because we need to open up more markets. We need to bring predictability, consistency, but it is important to constantly monitor it.

[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (43:39 – 43:56)

I think, sir, I am able to see a lot of difference. Government leaders like you, like Sanjeev Sanyal sir, you are the most data-driven people in the country, right? I don’t see so many startup entrepreneurs or venture capitalists.


What is the reason for this?


[Amitabh Kant] (43:58 – 45:22)

Look, transformation is not possible without data. Analysis is not possible without data. It is not possible to know who is doing good and who is doing bad without data.


Today, you will get data minute to minute. Every minute. And you can track everything.


And if you don’t use data in India, then there is no point. Because if India wants to leapfrog technologically, this is not possible in any other country because we are adding a new internet user every three minutes. And you have connectivity at this time.


You can bring data anywhere and show it immediately by monitoring it. When I was doing the aspirational district program, the Malkangiri collector came to me and he came by train from Odisha. And he said that I am coming in third position at this time in the program.


And my goal is to come at number one. He left about 48 hours ago. I opened my dashboard and saw that Malkangiri had slipped from third position to 7th position within 48 hours.


So I said, “Brother, you are in 7th position. If you want to come number one, you will have to work very hard now. So this minute to minute tracking makes a difference.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (45:23 – 45:28)

And you are thinking all the districts across the country now are competing in health.


[Amitabh Kant] (45:29 – 45:38)

Competition should be there in every district. Now it is happening in the aspirational district, it is happening in the aspirational blocks. But it is very important to put this model everywhere.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (45:38 – 45:41)


Sir, is this data public to the citizens? Like can I check this data?


[Amitabh Kant] (45:41 – 45:58)

That data was available.


All the data of the aspirational district, all these data are necessary to be put in the public domain. Because only then we will be able to name and shame. We will be able to tell MLAs, MPs, district collectors that how is your performance?


Did you go ahead or behind?


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (45:59 – 46:07)

And we can hold our leaders accountable. Because without data, till now, I think in the country, we have been holding leaders accountable to promises, not data.


[Amitabh Kant] (46:07 – 46:28)

Yes. So without data, it will be very difficult to tell who is doing good, who is doing bad, who is doing well in education, who is doing bad. So that outcome basis, which we never used to do outcome monitoring before.


Now we should only do outcome monitoring, nothing else.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (46:29 – 46:43)

I think right policies will be a side effect of just monitoring the outcome. Some of the things that you said are a link between labor force participation and economic prosperity. How do you explain that to a layman?


[Amitabh Kant] (46:43 – 47:28)

It is like this, when there is growth, only then jobs will be created. And that is why I emphasize again and again that growth is necessary and growth is also necessary in some labor-intensive sectors. That is why when we did PLI, not only in battery manufacturing, not only in phone manufacturing, but we also did it in food processing and textile.


Because in our opinion, it is also necessary to grow these sectors because here job creation and labor intensity is very high. And moving forward, India has a lot of potential in the textile sector. Look at some technical textiles or look at man-made fabrics.


India has not exploited this sector yet and it is very necessary to penetrate these sectors.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (47:29 – 47:37)

And sir, one thing that I want to emphasize now is the right time to switch to the heterogeneity in India, a challenge and an opportunity.


[Amitabh Kant] (47:37 – 48:39)


So India is a very big country. It is bigger than 24 countries in Europe. And we have many advantages, like we have made a grid. There is no grid anywhere in Europe. There is no grid in America. Second, there is a lot of variety. And if you look at it from the purposes of tourism, in the next 5 years, I think one area that needs to be explored a lot is travel and tourism which can give a lot of growth and can do a lot of job creation. So my opinion is that near…

The variety of India in our heritage, culture, one district, one product, our culture, art forms, cuisine, this variety is very important for us to tap for travel and tourism inefficient allocation of resources in India?

[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (48:40 – 48:50)


And sir, my next thing, because I am trying to extract the maximum value, there is a great opportunity that I have got with you. So, inefficient allocation of resources in India.


[Amitabh Kant] (48:50 – 50:27)

In the planning process, what happens is that the government determines the allocation of everything. In my view, the government’s role is Education, Health, and Nutrition. Rest of the aspects we should keep open. We must ensure that we offer top-class quality, improve learning outcomes, and offer top-class quality in health outcomes. We should offer top-class quality.


We have to track every pregnant woman so that we can end stunting and wasting. But we should leave all other resource allocation to the market. And we have to see how the market performs. We have to show that in the future, during the COVID period, India increased its capex expenditure in infrastructure by 4-4.5 percent and in the future, the private sector has to do capital expenditure. It is necessary to crowd the private sector in all these areas and that is why efficient allocation of resources happens only when the market performs well. And that is why my belief has always been that monopolies should not be created, oligopolistic character should not be allowed to come. The market should perform in such a way that we have very large companies, MSMEs, SMEs, constant innovation, technology disruption, and we move forward in new areas.

[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (50:28 – 50:34)

Sir, what has your experience been for the last 10 years working with the current Prime Minister?


[Amitabh Kant] (50:34 – 53:12)

So, the Prime Minister is very outcome driven. He is extremely delivery oriented. He is a big picture man and I think he is a very big techie at heart.


So, I have seen him drive the digital transformation of India and he had once asked me to do 100 digital Melas in 100 days and I thought that was very difficult, but he was very insistent. But when I look back at it, those 100 days enabled us to drive the digitization of India. Similarly, he made us do many presentations before we started the Startup India movement, I think one first time, second time, third time, fourth time, but he breaks down silos and he looks at a very multidisciplinary perspective.


So, he said don’t look at it only from your department’s viewpoint, look at it from the viewpoint of creating incubators, look at it from the viewpoint of IITs, IIMs, engineering colleges, look at it from the viewpoint of the rules, regulations, look at it from the viewpoint of venture capital. All perspectives were taken into consideration before the Startup India policy was announced. But once he announces the policy, then he leaves it to you and he wants you to deliver, then he is very, very outcome oriented.


Similarly, in the aspirational district program, we made many presentations to him, then he said his views were very clear that we have to transform the lives of citizens. In the most backward districts of India, don’t call them backward, call them aspirational and he said use data, use governance and good governance, he met collectors of these districts several times on his tours and inspired and motivated them. And therefore, he is very data driven and I find him very, very technology oriented, that is why India has been able to open up the geospatial sector, space sector, drone sector, all these sectors would have never got opened up but for his passion for technology.


And these are the sectors which will drive India’s growth story in the future. And my belief is that his passion, his commitment for driving technology intervention has been transformational for India.

[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (53:13 – 53:28)

Sir, a couple of things I want to ask out, the first is what are the institutions in India that you mentioned in your book, second is the rewiring of institutions and the third is the understanding of institutions’ role in the economic growth of India.


[Amitabh Kant] (53:29 – 54:53)

So, why we have, I have dealt with institutions at great length because it is very important that institutions do not remain outdated. The bureaucracy must be lively, it must be vibrant, it must be dynamic. Similarly, every institution of India must keep pace with the new technologies which are intervening.


And it will be very difficult to transform the judiciary without the use of artificial intelligence. And to my mind, technology must play a key role in speeding up reforms in the judicial system in India, which the Chief Justice has been talking about and has done a lot. And similarly, in accelerating the pace of arbitrations in India and making India the centre for business decisions in India and arbitration in India, mediation in India, all this, we need to create a completely big technological level jumping as to why arbitration cases go to Singapore and London.


They should all be done here. And this can only be done with the use of technology. We have demonstrated our ability to do this during COVID.


And why should we not do this in every sphere of our existence today? This is very critical.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (54:54 – 54:59)

Is the government also building new institutions or are we only reliant on the older institutions?


[Amitabh Kant] (55:00 – 55:54)

So, the government has done several new things. For instance, it changed the planning commission into the Niti Aayog. It has built up a capacity building organization and we have a new capacity skilling organization which has done path breaking work.


It has trained over 10 lakh railway inspectors. It has trained all the police officials. It has trained cutting edge officials and has put on board a vast number of new skill programs digitally so that anybody can go and access and get himself trained digitally across the board in many of these areas.


And therefore, these are new institutions which have been created and which will help us. Look at the green hydrogen mission. These are all transformations.


Look at the AI mission. Look at the quantum computing mission. These are completely new institutions which will enable India to leapfrog into the next century.

[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (55:55 – 56:01)

How is the export of India changing? Because that is the one thing that will take us to a 60 trillion dollar economy.


[Amitabh Kant] (56:03 – 56:53)

Look, exports are important. Without exports, India will not be able to grow and that is why when we drew up the production linked incentive scheme, our aim was to create big champions. One single objective, have big champions.


Big champions will create the momentum for small and medium enterprises. Big companies will produce on a global scale. So, every Indian startup must not think of only producing in India.


You should think of the global market and how we are going to penetrate the global market. You get 10x the value of what you produce in India in the global markets and therefore, penetrating global markets is a must. And without exports growing on a large basis, it will not be possible for us to be a 35 trillion dollar economy and therefore, we need to penetrate global markets.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (56:53 – 57:13)

So, one example that I have is the largest companies of America, be you take Nvidia, Apple, Microsoft, Google, their valuation on the public markets are almost equal to the GDPs of India. Should we aspire to create that kind of company and how will we do that?


[Amitabh Kant] (57:13 – 57:51)

No, so we will do that. Once you have innovation, once you have technology, once you have disruption, once you have startups, these startups today, startups are tomorrow’s large companies. That will all happen in due course.


As you grow and expand, all your startups will grow and expand into large companies. We need to ensure that there is greater, better corporate governance. We need to ensure that there is a fund of funds for deep tech.


We need to ensure that there are many more women entrepreneurs in India and India will grow and expand into creating many, many large companies in India.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (57:51 – 58:04)

One thing that has been often said at some point in time, very recently, like the participation of women, since you mentioned that the economy was much lower than Bangladesh. How is that changing?


[Amitabh Kant] (58:04 – 59:05)

So, the female labor participation ratio is showing improvement. It has jumped up to 37 percent. It should be close to 50 percent as we grow and expand.


There has been a lot of analysis on this. A lot of women are now getting into higher education. That was one of the reasons.


But I think the female labor participation ratio will improve in the years to come. But it is important that the huge emphasis has now been laid by the Prime Minister on women-led development. Huge emphasis has been laid on their education, their nutrition, and putting them into leadership positions.


And to my mind, this will be the biggest transformation. There are as many women as men in India. And what you will see in the coming years is India’s GDP growing simply because there will be many more women participating in the Indian economy in the future.


The World Economic Forum said that you need 132 years to bring equality between men and women. That we do not have 132 years. We need to do it in the next five to six years.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (59:06 – 59:12)

As one of my last questions is right, you mentioned how do locational advantages differ like the case study between let’s say Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.


[Amitabh Kant] (59:14 – 1:00:13)

So there are advantages of being a port state and port enables you to have a quick turnaround and exports, that’s important. But Uttar Pradesh, it’s also important that it’s a very fertile area. It’s got an adequate amount of water.


We need to ensure that there is greater better logistics, better infrastructure, better improvement in its social indicators and UP will perform very well and then we need to connect Uttar Pradesh with some of the ports close by and once you are connected to the ports, UP will do very well in terms of transformation as several of the newer, you see many large manufacturing getting into Noida and greater Noida. All this will be transformational for the future and Uttar Pradesh also needs to do good sustainable urbanization in the coming years.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (1:00:13 – 1:00:20)

Sir, two of your favorite people that you constantly quote in your book, one is Michael Porter. And the second is Albert Eichmann.




[Amitabh Kant] (1:00:21 – 1:01:09)

So, these are important people because we had invited Michael Porter for the Neeti lecture series and what he brought about was that competition is key, public data is key, constant ranking is key, putting that out is important and therefore, my belief always has been that constantly creating competition. Only when we compete with each other will we be able to excel and put that data in public domain so that the competition pressure will force us to improve whether it’s districts, whether it’s states, whether it’s cities, whether it’s human beings, all of us.

[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (1:01:10 – 1:01:17)

So, as a last parting message, right, what’s your message to the youth, right? What should they arise from the next 5 to 10 years?


[Amitabh Kant] (1:01:18 – 1:02:09)

So, firstly, be very optimistic about India. Secondly, India is transforming, becoming a part of that journey. Thirdly, always decide on what you want to do and get into it and give your best for that because when you perform your best in that particular area, there’s so many opportunities from Mudra scheme to Drone Didi to Swanidhi scheme, you look at it, these are all transformational schemes for India.


So, you become a Drone Didi or become a New Entrepreneur through Mudra Yojana or you start a startup. All these opportunities are open in India and this is an opportunity to play a very important role in transforming India. This is an opportunity for all of us.


When India grows, we all grow. When you grow, India grows.

[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (1:02:10 – 1:02:19)

Thank you so much, sir. It’s been such a great conversation and I would love to host you at some point in future as we keep on, you know, exploring more narratives.


[Amitabh Kant] (1:02:20 – 1:02:23)

Thank you. My pleasure. I greatly enjoyed it. Thank you.


[Siddhartha Ahluwalia] (1:02:23 – 1:02:23)

Thank you, sir.


[Amitabh Kant] (1:02:23 – 1:02:24)

Thank you

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