After numerous trips to India and discussions with the leaders of many businesses (large and small), two things are clear. There is already a U.S-sized market here and it’s very sustainable.
India’s population of about 1.2 billion includes roughly the same number of people in various socio-economic levels as the U.S.’s 350 million. The obvious difference is that India then also has another 800 million people living in abject urban or rural poverty. A less apparent difference is that 65% of India’s population is under the age of 35. And because Indians have always had to do more with less, they are among the world’s most innovative people for maximizing efficient use of things like energy, food, building materials, and water. In other words, there’s a U.S.-equivalent market of consumers that are focused on all things sustainable and who have a lifetime of purchasing power ahead of them.
For example, last week in New Delhi I met DK Jain, who made a fortune in manufacturing pens and providing telecom services, but has now turned his attention to devising chemicals that could prevent solar panels from being covered in dust. Using nano-particles, his invention will make solar panels a third more efficient simply by keeping them clean. I also saw how the American firm, Lighting Science Group, is teaming up with Delhi-based Dixon Technologies to build a better light bulb for the global market and are developing a solar streetlight that allows communities to save energy and improve lives.
But my biggest surprise was meeting the state political leaders at a session of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new R20 organization–leaders who are changing India and thereby changing the world. Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit of Delhi (equivalent of a governor in the U.S.) has transformed the city’s ubiquitous fleet of motorized rickshaws (along with buses and taxis) to run on clean natural gas. She has led campaigns against wasteful single-use plastic bags and planted enough trees to fill Central Park several times over. Her approval rating is sky-high and she is being encouraged to run for a third term.
Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal has set out clean development policies that will make Himachal Pradesh the first carbon-neutral state in the country, while seeing impressive growth in industries as diverse as pharmaceuticals, IT engineering, and food processing. He is proving the economic benefits of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and a level regulatory playing field.
And Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi stressed “localization” to address environmental and economic sustainability challenges, leading campaigns to get consumers in his state of Assam to conserve resources at home and switch to bio-fuels for transportation and energy. He spoke from a very unique perspective about the urgent need to address global warming, saying, “I am faced with a situation where every year the Brahmaputra River gobbles up land [from climate change-related floods], resulting in loss of habitats of elephants, leading to man-elephant conflicts.”
I don’t mean to gloss over the fact that a recent report found that India’s big cities have the worst air quality in the world and there are mountains of trash and rivers of sewage to address. But because of increasingly eco-conscious consumers–and voters–the states of India are tackling these challenges and creating new business opportunities in the process.
Perhaps these are useful lessons for American politicians in this election year and for U.S. businesses looking for ways to beat their competition out of the recession: With inspired entrepreneurs and political leaders, especially at the state level, India will simultaneously create massive opportunity to tackle sustainability challenges and create new economic opportunity.