I am delighted to join you all for this lunch today, and also to see some familiar faces from previous visits and in Britain. I have been greatly looking forward to this visit after a gap of 11 years, but I will have to pay many more visits to this vast and diverse country for which I have a particular affection. It has been good this time to visit Delhi and Rajasthan and see again at first hand many facets of India's life, and now to experience the more cosmopolitan feel of Mumbai.
I have just had a very enjoyable visit to the Dabbawallas. I can say that the tiffin they offered to the customers is of a very high standard. For more than a hundred years they have had an incredible record of success without using any modern technology at all – it is an extraordinary example of what can be done.
One of the many things I have learned about India in my contacts both within India and with Indians in Britain (who now number well over a million and are one of our most successful new communities) is the great importance you attach to relationships. Family life and the links between generations really matter to Indians, generating relationships that can withstand mobility, change and the passage of time. Such relationships are based on a deep sense of respect and pride, which is all the more admirable in today's world. In the family, it is something sacred. In society, it underpins the self-improvement and self-help that is such a strength in Indian communities.
India has also built strong relationships on its history, which is perhaps why the Indo-British relationship is valued so highly by both nations. This relationship, encouraged by the Governments, institutions and leading business associations of both countries, appears to me to be flourishing. It is expressed at a personal level in widespread travel and tourism, but also in defence, employment, the professions, culture and education, and of course in extensive trade and investment in both directions. Indeed, I am told that trade between our countries grew by a remarkable 16% in the first half of this year.
All enduring relationships, I believe, have a firm foundation of mutual trust and respect, and this is as true in business as in any other sphere of human activity. But in an increasingly transparent and distrustful world, businesses are finding they can no longer take trust and respect for granted. At a time when the irresponsible actions of a minority of companies seem often in the headlines, it is important for individual companies to be clear about their values, their principles and their business practices.
More importantly, they have to be prepared to indicate what they regard as unacceptable. That, to my mind, would be a powerful demonstration of corporate social responsibility in the global economy. Public attitudes are changing rapidly and I am pleased that my International Business Leaders Forum together with the UK Department for International Development and the World Bank, and others, are encouraging the highest standards of corporate governance and business ethics, building on the good practices of the best companies around the world.
here is now, I believe, a general recognition that businesses must take responsibility for their impacts on the natural environment and be accountable, either in law or to public opinion. Increasingly, there is also an expectation that businesses will make a positive contribution to the human societies in which they operate. This includes helping to provide sustainable livelihoods in rural and urban communities, as well as responding to the challenges of providing clean water, shelter, health and educational opportunities.
Some of us, I think, met when I last visited India in 1992 to discuss these issues. We talked about the long tradition of the great Indian business houses, engaging in rural development, philanthropy and education. I don't think many of us would have believed that in little more than a decade these ideas would have become accepted so widely in both our countries, and I do congratulate the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British High Commission here in India for the enthusiasm they have shown towards these concepts in recent years.
One of the pressing challenges that I hope more companies in India, whether Indian or international, can turn their creative minds to is the issue of enabling sustainable livelihoods in rural areas. I am sure no-one here needs me to spell out the dangers of an increased drift of disadvantaged and disaffected people to the cities, creating huge urban pressures and increasing degradation, but I fear that is what will happen if new opportunities cannot be created in the rural areas.
Businesses looking for strategic partners will find many excellent rural development NGOs. I have seen some very impressive projects over the last week run by TERI, the Arpana Trust, Action Aid, and the Barefoot College. There is much to learn, I believe, from their approach to rural development and sustainability, as well as the application of appropriate technology – from rainwater harvesting to solar energy – and solar-powered computers! “Seeing really is believing”, so I do hope I might be able to encourage you all to try and visit such projects.
It has been especially rewarding for me on this trip to have seen some truly remarkable projects, particularly, as Patron of WaterAid, in conserving scarce water resources. I spent a fascinating day in Rajasthan looking at the work of both Tarun Bhaghat Sangh and the Barefoot College. The inspirational leaders of these two organisations, Rajendra Singh and Bunker Roy, have revitalized abandoned traditional techniques, which worked in harmony with the harsh natural conditions for 1000's of years, in order to save water and revitalize underground aquifers.
These methods, visibly and effectively, engage the village communities and deliver tangible dividends to everyone in the society they serve. So the children are coming to school where there is fresh water newly available, the women are empowered because they don't have to spend so much of their lives fetching water, two crops a year can be produced, fodder supplies and livestock numbers increased – in other words, a whole range of extremely valuable social benefits from the wise harvesting of scarce water.
I was struck, at the Barefoot College project in the Ajmer region of Rajasthan, by the way in which the traditional craft industries had been revitalized on the back of these community level projects. Here we were seeing education and vocational training working side by side. We all abhor child labour (and I understand there may be as many as 250 million children working around the world), but in our righteous efforts to stamp out this practice, let us not lose the long-standing and very valuable connection between education and later vocational training.
It seems to me that a critical role that business can play in society, and where it has unique credentials, is in enterprise development for young people. I couldn't be more proud and delighted that the Bharatiya Yuva Shankti Trust (BYST) has gone from strength to strength since my last visit 11 years ago. Remarkable progress has been achieved, with the support of the CII and Indian business leaders, and through the enthusiastic and inimitable determination of Lakshmi Venkatesan.
BYST is now making a real impact on the growth of new enterprises by young people in India and has become an important partner of both my Youth Business International and my IBLF as we develop similar models around the world. It is a fine example of corporate citizenship in action.
Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you won't mind if I conclude with a personal plea for something I find very special about your country. India, perhaps more than any other nation in the world, has a true sense of the Sacred. For centuries, Indians have been admired for seeing the world, and human life, in an holistic way – as a network of essential relationships. I hope that modernisation and economic growth, crucial as they are to the future of your country, will not be achieved at the expense of this special characteristic.
Today, with all the pressures that we have created in this world of ours, it could not be more important that we recognise that there are certain limits to our ambitions on this Earth. A sense of humility, some open-mindedness, and the wisdom to see beyond the short-term are the qualities which we all need if we are to develop a real understanding of what is truly sustainable and above all, protective of the interests of our children and grandchildren. Compromising their future is a real possibility if we fail properly to read the lessons of history, or fail to put into practice the important principles of continuity of management enshrined in the Bruntland Commission report.
As I near the end of my visit, like so many western travellers to India, I find myself reflecting on the colour, variety and charm of this magnificent country. But many countries have colour and variety and charm. What I find unique about India is the quality of India's human capital and the strength of the diverse human relationships that underpin every aspect of society. Relationships matter here. Values matter here too, especially spiritual values.
India could have such a vital role for the future of our interdependent world by leading the way in the subtle blending and harmonizing of the best values of her ancient civilization with the best and most appropriate aspects of her, and our, technological ingenuity. Without some form of respect for the hard-won, inherited wisdom of the past our children's children will reap a bitter harvest of further fragmentation and environmental degradation.
It seems to me that the corporate sector – and those of you who lead it – have a crucial part to play in all this, above all to ensure that there is some cultural continuity rather than the insidious contagion of diversity through the convenience of homogenization.
I certainly value my own relationship with the Indian business community, with your country and with your countrymen, and I am grateful to you for giving up your precious time to be here this afternoon and for the opportunity to meet a large number of you.