Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday told a luncheon meeting of American CEOs that India will reduce tariff rates to make them comparable with those of the Association of South East Asian Nations.
The luncheon for the prime minister and 13 CEOs from across the United States, co-hosted on Wednesday by India's ambassador to the United States Ronen Sen and William Jefferson Jr, Chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase, saw a healthy and lively interaction.
Having no fixed agenda, the meeting took the form of a back and forth discussion that while raising the problems faced by businessmen, also presented solutions. When the gathering raised the problem of infrastructure lags in India, the prime minister responded that while it was a constraint, it also presented industry with a tremendous opportunity to step in.
"When the prime minister was here for United Nations General Assembly session last year I had co-hosted, along with the New York Stock Exchange, a meeting of top CEOs. This year Jefferson stepped," Sen told the media in New York. The interaction was limited to a small and select group of CEOs.
"Quite a few others wanted to join in but it was decided by us that it should be restricted to a small group, in order to make it more useful."
The prime minister told the CEOs that his government would be more responsive to concerns of industry, both Indian and foreign. One of the chairmen suggested that India should have more airports and outlined the advantages that it provided, the business opportunities that came up, the jobs it creates, apart from leading to more air travel, lower airfare, and providing an opportunity for foreign companies to step in. In this respect, Sen commented, "I don't think we have one single airport anywhere in India that is comparable to international standards."
He added that this interaction was an important part of the prime minister's visit to the United States, and that Singh is convinced that the economic component of foreign policy is very critical.
The CEOs came from different parts of the US, and showed a tremendous interest in the meeting, and India. Some of them made suggestions; others would be making some more, which will be forwarded to him to be sent in turn to the government.
When asked about investments proposals from today's meeting, Sen said those decisions will be taken in India, based on inputs from industry representatives, our own priorities and the interests of Indian industry.
Asked if the Left's influence on government policy came up, Sen said the CEOs were very clear about India, its politics, knew it had a coalition, but also knew that the economic reforms were irreversible. The pace may be slow, but there is no inertia, Sen commented. "We are getting there slowly, incrementally, but we are getting there."
He added that the issue of labour reforms came up, but did not elaborate. Foreign direct investment in retail trade, however, did not come up.
The CEOs who attended the luncheon were:
· William Harrison Jr, Chairman, CEO, JP Morgan Chase
· Rex W Tillerson, President, Exxon-Mobil
· Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman & CEO, GE
· William R Rhoes, Chairman, Citibank/Citicorp
· Martin J Sullivan, President & CEO, American International Group
· Ander N Liveris, Chairman & CE), Dow Chemical
· Steven S Reinemund, Chairman & CEO, PepsiCo
· Sy Sternberg, CEO, New York Life
· Patricia F Russon, CEO, Lucent Tech
· Rupert K Murdoch, Chairman & CEO, News Corporation
· Stephen A Schwarzman, Chairman & CEO, The Blackstone Group
· Charles Kaye, Chairman, US IBC, Co-President, Warburg Pincus
· John A Thain, CEO, NYSE