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India Global Forum – celebrating traditions of dialogue, diversity

India Global Forum – celebrating traditions of dialogue, diversity

On the eve of the India Global Forum (IGF), I would like to reflect on India’s place in the world of commerce and enterprise. It has a long history of global trade, and in the 17th and 18th centuries, a third of world trade passed through India. It is home to some of the oldest living cultures of the world and is plural and inclusive of one and all. Its traditions and philosophies respect all living beings, making it very prescient at a time when we are trying to protect and nurture biodiversity. It has a strong legacy of respecting forests as reservoirs of hope, where some of our most famous saints and prophets have meditated for days and even months on end.

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Unfortunately, modern business has suppressed the importance of culture and materialistic finance has come to overwhelm it, by seeing all people as labour, a cost to be minimised and cut, rather than an asset to be valued and nurtured. Numbers and money have come more and more to rule the game, and this is deeply short-termist. Global business wants to universalise its systems and processes, and outsource culture or respect to the margins, focusing instead on productivity, efficiency, technology and above all profit and wealth maximisation. This approach can be very mechanistic and impersonal, and would be alien to many businesses in India, which put culture at the heart of their operations and value its importance. Sadly, its scientifically endorsed greed has gone deep into the business and professional curricula in India, poisoning its business practices.

India Global Forum, with its varieties of conversations, topics, and workshops, is designed for dialogue rather than hierarchy or egoism. I welcome this format. It is also located in prestigious venues, which is important in showing that India is not a third world nation and can work on par with any other country. Given the buzz about India, and the coolness of China geopolitics, this conference is likely to be a big success.

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However, the West needs to learn to invest in understanding and respecting the culture of India, and abandon its colonial baggage and attitudes. It should not see India as exotic or low cost, but as an equal partner and even an ally in the fight to shape sustainable development all over the world. This requires a change in perception as well as understanding.

As a Business Professor who researches these themes, I am deeply frustrated by the lack of importance given to culture and diversity both in research and teaching, and also among Business leaders. Many experts think that they are broad-minded and open, so they can easily work with everyone, without realising that a lot of prejudices are subconscious. Their ignorance and cultural illiteracy is vast. Relationships are not just about open-mindedness, but about understanding and sensitivity too, and they can go much further than transactional thinking and behaviour. This takes a lot of time and investment, and the arrogance of the West is so deep that it does not even see the need to patiently understand India. Just look at the Boardrooms of British, European or American businesses, and spot the Indian, even when they do hundreds of millions of dollars of business with India. They don’t even think they need an Indian on the Board!

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Research on inter-cultural dialogue, engagement and learning needs much bigger resources and investment, and should be seen as critical to business performance and productivity. India could take a lead in this, just as it is taking a lead on the global business front, as it already knows so much about diversity, being home to all the major faiths of the world and a vast ocean of languages and festivals. Its knowledge of pluralism begins with biodiversity and is therefore deeply un-anthropocentric. No-one else has such a rich wisdom reservoir. It is time the world respects it and invests in learning from its deep philosophy and heritage.

Professor Atul K. Shah [@atulkshah] teaches and writes about Indian wisdom on business, culture and community at various UK universities and is a renowned international author, speaker and broadcaster.  

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