Author of On a Clear Day You Can See India discusses insurgencies, bureaucracies, and other facts of life.
If he ever writes his life story, C. Balagopal says he’ll call it Memoirs of a Man Who Never Knew What He Wanted to Do.
Balagopal, who goes by the nickname “Bala,” said that he “never planned too far ahead” in his long and distinguished career, first as a civil servant in the Indian government and then as a pioneer in the biomedical manufacturing industry.
This impulsive character doesn’t seem to have held him back.
In a visit to the Tata Center, Bala engaged students and staff in a freewheeling, wide-ranging conversation, displaying wit and wisdom gained from a lifetime of navigating the Indian governmental and business landscapes.
If Bala does write that book, it won’t be his first. In 2013 he published On a Clear Day You Can See India, a collection of anecdotes and lessons gleaned from his 6 year stint as an IAS district officer in “the Wild East,” the far-flung state of Manipur in northeast India.
Manipur, he explained, is a place both part of and far-removed from “mainland” India. Extending beyond Bangladesh to the border with Myanmar, and connected to the rest of the country by only a thin sliver of land, “the distance from the Northeast to the rest of India is not only physical, but mental.”
Economically depressed and culturally isolated, Manipur has long been susceptible to insurgencies and extremist elements. Bala is dismayed by the Indian response to this issue, which has been to deploy troops: “The answer to insurgencies in Manipur is not military. It is to create livelihoods.”
To that end, he has founded the Startup Cafe, a place where residents can come to learn the basics of entrepreneurship, even if it means something as simple as starting a cycle-rickshaw business or a tea stall. Bala feels that northeast India has huge potential in the fields of agri-business and horticulture, particularly their rare orchid strains. The biggest challenge to development in Manipur, he said, “is logistics–roads and power.”
And when it comes to entrepreneurship, Bala knows what he’s talking about. 28 years ago he founded Penpol Ltd–now Terumo Penpol, India’s largest blood bag manufacturer, and the largest in Asia outside of Japan.
Bala has advice for entrepreneurs hoping to tap the Indian market: Don’t just manufacture in India, “bring in the expertise and design in India.”
If you want a product or service to resonate with Indians, he said, “design the product for India.”
The most difficult aspect of doing business in India is one that, according to Bala, hasn’t changed since he began: the regulating statutes. Even as international capital has flowed in following the liberalization of the country in 1991, the laws have gone unchanged.
Bala humorously described the travails, as a medical device maker, of dealing with India’s byzantine Drug Controller General, which he called a “quite remarkable institution.”
He also addressed issues of doing business in his native Kerala, with its strong labor movement: “Trade unions are a fact of life. They have a constitutional right [to organize].” More difficult, he said, was coping with the worker migration issue that is dramatically changing India.
The labor force and the jobs are unevenly distributed nationwide, meaning that in some areas workers languish while in others employers can’t fill open positions. The situation is further complicated by the government’s rural employment guarantee schemes, which can, according to Bala, disincentivize people from seeking work.
Workers have begun migrating in huge numbers, but this brings with it a host of social concerns. “It’s a potentially problematic issue,” he said, noting impacts on smaller communities.
Finally, he tackled question about India’s notorious culture of official corruption. When Penpol initially refused to pay bribes, they were subjected to regular “surprise inspections.” But when they continued to refuse, eventually the local officials became resigned. Today, he said, they enjoy a relationship of mutual respect with the government.
“You can build companies without succumbing to corruption. When business points a finger, it doesn’t consider its own culpability. [Businesses] have to start the change themselves.”
Now in semi-retirement, Bala serves on various boards and mentors startups and entrepreneurs. Not bad for a man who never knew what he wanted to do.