Sunil Bharti Mittal, the chairman of Bharti Airtel Ltd, India’s largest mobile telephony firm with over 40 million customers, is the first representative of the service industry in five years to head industry lobby Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). Mittal, who recently divested operational responsibilities at Bharti Airtel to focus on CII, heads a corporate group with interests in telecom, agriculture and retail. He terms the year ahead that he will spend heading CII as a year in national service. In an interview with Mint, Mittal spoke about the need for inclusive growth, education, and skill development. Edited excerpts:
How have you been preparing yourself for this role during the last year?
We’ve prepared the company for this year—prepared the management board. I clearly knew that this year a lot of (my) time would be spent outside the company, travelling in India and outside. So, that part is done. As vice-president, I have been preparing in my mind to do this as a national service and learn the nuances of the chamber’s working, and its huge reach across the country and the globe. I am leading a delegation next week to Washington, New York and later in the week to London. So, there’s a lot in my cup.
What aspects of your leadership style are you going to bring to CII?
Transparency, I think —transparency of industry in dealing with society at large. Collaborating with the government, that’s my style. Even if we have any disagreements, we’ll try to resolve the disagreements with logic and the conviction that what you are proposing is good for the nation at large. I would equally want the government to be brave and try to overcome critical obstacles.
Do you see any areas of conflict (with the government) that could come up in your tenure?
I think we want deregulation of financial services and retail, and then, there are specific industry issues like 3G (the issue of licences to companies wishing to operate third-generation telecom networks). Those issues will evolve.
Have you identified any issue you will focus on within your tenure?
Education. That’ll be my big drive. Education is very regulated today and there are issues like private participation in the education area, foreign universities, corporate universities, development of faculty and teachers, higher compensation for teachers.
To what extent do you think the government is aware of these issues?
They are aware, very much aware. But there are voices which say that private-sector participation in this sector would drive up the cost of education. We have to work with the government and address these concerns.
What sort of time frame do you have in mind for resolving this issue? And do you have any specific plans?
I’ve got 12 months or 11 months, depending on the next annual session of CII. We would have a major education summit in the next three to four months and before that put out a position paper on what exactly we want.
I don’t think that we can solve this problem within this year, but I’ll be glad if I can lay a foundation.
CII has traditionally been perceived as a club of manufacturers, in a manner of speaking. But the service industry has played a big role in expanding the economy in recent times. How do you plan to increase the service industry’s involvement?
Who are the top two people in CII? They are both service (industry) people (Mittal himself, and vice-president of CII, K.V.Kamath, the managing director of ICICI Bank Ltd). There are (also service) people in development councils.
Do you think that you need to tweak your initiative of ‘Building People, Building India’ to include the service industry?
The service industry is a representative part. People skills and development are very much a part of retail, business process outsourcing, software and therefore, very very clearly, it (our initiative) is going to be service-oriented. Equally, skill sets of rust collar workers —carpenters, plumbers, drivers, chefs—all (are important). That’s why I say, traditionally the blue- and white-collar workers were the base of the industry and rust collar the future.
How do you propose to work on the agenda (of building people)? Right now, it is on paper.
Banking. We need people to be able to pick up money and get skills in a particular trade. If someone doesn’t have the money, but good aptitude, banks must be able to back him and an authority (regulatory or supervisory body) to monitor and push skill-development. What we need is a catalyst. We need some key messages and people will start coming. For example, with a higher level of skill, you can earn five times the salary you are earning.
(The) Authority looks after putting in place a framework, certification, the adoption of ITI (industrial training institutes) by industry, some by CII, some by Ficci (a rival industry lobby), creation of 50,000 ITIs by private-public partnership, etc. There’s a planning commission task force on skill development which will come out with a report, and CII and its members will pick up (points) from that report.
Is there any sort of measurable target you have set by the end of the year for the skill-development initiative?
The reports should have the targets. The target actually is that 280 million people are coming (into the working or ready-to-work population) in 10 years. A large number of them may create problems if they are not taken care of.
Is there going to be some monetary commitment from CII members towards the skill-development initiative?
CII is well funded and it will be taken care of.
Industry and services have been growing fast, but agriculture has been lagging. According to you, what are the three most critical points that should be there in the country’s agriculture policy?
In my point of view, linkage between farmers, markets and the customer. (You need) cold chains, storage, warehouses, transportation, packaging… you can’t have all these till you have organized retail come into play. You can’t just wish for great growth. You need to carry it, transport it to the customer. That’s the most critical thing. With technology, farmers are in a position to grow more; they can do a good job. Then (we need) corporate farming. We hope to start a debate at the policy level on this issue.