Photographs: Reuters Simanta Roy
'It is character that allows me to have the conviction, which allows me to have the courage, which allows me to stand up for what is right or wrong, former army chief General V K Singh tells the Harvard India Conference. Rediff.com contributor Simanta Roy listens in.
On a snowy weekend, social entrepreneurs, world-renowned thought leaders and activists, and 700 ticket-clutching attendees gathered in Boston and Cambridge, respectively, to discuss topics ranging from Indian foreign policy and the state of higher education to sports and Bollywood at the 12th annual Harvard India Conference.
This year's theme, 'Turning the Page: Prospects and Paradoxes,' aimed to tackle the dualism that often defines India -- 'the contrast between immense wealth and abject poverty, cutting-edge science and age-old superstitions, powerful goddesses and opposed women... a great future, but an uncertain present,' the conference literature said.
Though the conference is an annual event, this was the biggest one yet, with an additional 200 tickets sold, said Sanya Gurnani, a second-year Harvard Business School student who was conference co-chair responsible for managing the content and operations side of the event.
"More than attendance, it was important for us to grow from a content perspective," Sanya said.
The committee, she explained, had to be conscious of not just featuring the "sexy ones like entrepreneurship and technology," but other sectors of growth that haven't been openly discussed recently.
"Manufacturing hasn't been talked about in forever, but there are huge issues such as labour laws, exciting prospects from a youth perspective, and so on," she said.
Similarly, "Tourism is a Rs 5 trillion industry in India, but it doesn't get talked about."
This school of thought brought together an all-star line-up of keynoters and panelists like Karambir Kang, area director, Taj Hotels, and general manager, Taj Boston; Amit Kalyani, executive director, Bharat Forge (a metal-forging company based in Pune, India, whose market value in 2006 was estimated at $1.8 billion), discussing the challenges, themes, and methods for moving forward in various Indian sectors.
One such panel -- 'Localisation of healthcare in India' -- juxtaposed India's move towards universal health coverage by doubling public spending on health with the intense need to improve the health care quality.
Panelist Jishnu Das, lead economist for the Development Research Group at the World Bank, highlighted the government's refusal to address a lack of professional medical training in "one of the densest primary care networks in the world," with "about eight health care providers in every village in India."
"These guys are of terrible quality, but with enormous access," he said. "80 per cent (of primary care delivered in the private sector) is delivered by people who don't have any medical training."
"There is only one system here that is too big to fail, and those are the guys with no medical training," he went on. "The government has made no advance at all on what to do about this, and the basic attitude is one of plausible deniability. We cannot actually claim to know this fact, because then we have to try and do something about it, and we can't do something about it, because then people will feel that you're abdicating your responsibilities."
Gita Sen, a professor at the India Institute of Management-Bangalore who has worked extensively on issues dealing with poverty, gender equality, and human rights, spoke of a need for structure established by the federal government.
"If you're going to talk about moving towards universal health coverage in India in a serious way, you need a regulatory framework," she said at the panel on 'Linking quality to recent health care reforms in India' "Nobody has done it without that."
Without that, she said, universal health care faced too many challenges to be successful, especially for those who worked to earn daily wages and based their judgment of competent medical care on whether they felt better quickly -- not necessarily whether the doctor was using the most upright medical practices.
General Vijay Kumar Singh, the retired chief of army staff of the Indian Army, spoke of leadership lessons he picked up in his 42 years of service at the a keynote discussion on the subject.
He outlined 'The Five Cs' as the five essential traits in leadership:
Though a good leader needed an "amalgamation of these five things," he counted character as the most important.
"It is character that allows me to have the conviction, which allows me to have the courage, which allows me to stand up for what is right or wrong."
Political and social activist Aruna Roy, named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in 2011 and best known for her efforts in bringing transparency to India's bureaucracy through the Rights to Information movement, discussed her belief that a rights-based approach -- the right to shelter, food, and other basic human rights -- was essential to social policy reform in India at the closing plenary on 'Rights-based realisation of social policy.'
"When we talk about rights-based laws, we're not talking about something which is a handout," she said. "It is a realisation of Constitutional guarantees by a people who can't claim it, because of the feudal structure and the kind of discrimination that happens in all of India -- but specifically in rural India."
The conference hosted these debates and discussions at the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The format included 12 one-hour forums with anywhere from two to six panelists each and one moderator, often a Harvard University professor with expertise in a related field, who steered the discussion.
Attendees were encouraged to participate in Q&A sessions and many took full advantage, including Kartikeya Ladha, a third year Northeastern University student studying business and journalism.
"The issues being discussed here are real problems that India is going through right now and has been going through for some time," Ladha, who grew up in India, said. "It's very important that youngsters and people who don't know much about it yet... all come together and talk about it and look for solutions to these problems."
Kimaya Agarwal, a technical solutions engineer at Akamai Technologies in Cambridge, said she was really interested in attending the panel on LGBT rights. "This is something that hasn't really been discussed out in the open. There's a stereotype, and if you don't fall within that stereotype, you're considered 'weird' or 'unsocial'. We need to be more open and accepting of new ideas."