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A Ticket On The Caravan To Kabul

India Inc eyes big business opportunities in a ravaged country

A Ticket On The Caravan To Kabul
A Ticket On The Caravan To Kabul
Masood Khalili, the man who carries 800 shrapnels in his body, cannot stand on his feet, even with the help of a stick, for more than 60 seconds. But when the Afghanistan ambassador to New Delhi addressed a section of Indian industry in the capital last week, he was as confident of his own recovery as of his country's, a nation at war with itself for the last 23 years. "Now, we will fight no more," he declared. "We want tractors, not tanks in our fields."

The Indian businessmen, eager to be part of the promised multi-billion dollar aid package to Afghanistan, applauded these brave words. Khalili, a graduate from Delhi's Kirori Mal college, had his audience listening attentively, but beyond an invitation to come and reconstruct Afghanistan, he could make few concrete promises.

The war-torn nation is today looking at the global community to help rebuild itself—a business opportunity of huge dimensions everyone wants to cash in on. Indian industry chambers, together with the foreign ministry, have been, over the last couple of weeks, lobbying hard to get Indian business capabilities noticed by the funding agencies.

The World Bank, along with the Asian Development Bank and other multilateral funding agencies, meet in Tokyo this week to announce the package. In the meantime, everyone is making their own calculations. But a rough estimate, going by comparable international benchmarks, and after an assessment of Afghanistan's needs, amounts to a $10-$20-billion package over the next 10 years. A decade, however, is a long time and going by past experiences, funding generally starts drying up after the initial enthusiasm. Realistically, therefore, the pie for the next five years could stand at around $7-8 billion. In addition, bilateral aid could add up to another $1 billion to the kitty. To begin with, the UNDP has listed a few priority areas—though the nation is a picture of destruction, healthcare, education, water supply and construction of homes is going to top the list.

But while the UNDP resident representative in India, Dr Brenda Gael McSweeney, feels neighbouring countries like India "could make all the difference" in the reconstruction initiative, New Delhi's special envoy to Kabul, S.K. Lambah, cautions about the severe competition, especially from countries like Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and Russia.

Once the package is decided in Tokyo, appointing consultants to make a country strategy report to avoid a situation where wrong things reach the right place would be the first step before global tenders are floated. A stroke of bad luck: the request by India that their businessmen be represented at the Tokyo meet was rejected. But some Indian industry bodies like FICCI (the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) plan to send their representative to Tokyo anyway, to "hang around" with portfolios of Indian companies.

India is also trying to lobby so that a few Indian companies get in at the consultant level. Says Krishan Kalra, additional secretary general, FICCI: "BHEL, for example, has a consultancy wing which will be much stronger than any McKinsey in the power sector. Since individual Indian consultancies cannot compete with foreigners, we are taking this route." Even when global tenders are floated, specifications friendly to the western world are built in, to keep others away. India is lobbying hard against this.

Though the $100 million pledged by India for Afghanistan for reconstruction in the areas of education, health and agriculture will go to Indian companies, the real opportunities will lie in the larger pie. FICCI has prepared a list of more than 30 companies that have the potential to get work in Afghanistan and are advising them to tie up with western or Japanese firms for larger projects.The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) is already on the lookout for a local representative in Afghanistan to start an office in Kabul to help its members with information on the ground. And since NGOs are going to be an important part of the reconstruction process, Indian businesses will do well to keep in touch with agencies working in their related fields.

India stands a good chance of getting business in telecom, construction and healthcare. Afghanistan's fact-sheet reveals the stunning scale of work that needs to be done—it just has two telephones for every thousand persons, 50 per cent of all housing has been destroyed or damaged, and one of every four child dies before age five.

One of the first initiatives taken by India was to reopen the Indira Gandhi Children's Hospital in Kabul. Plus, it has set up an artificial limb centre in the capital, to fit about 1,000 people with Jaipur Foots. (Even today, 10 million mines are estimated to litter the Afghan landscape.) Indian companies, like the UP State Bridge Corporation which has completed more than 50 projects abroad in countries like Iraq and Oman, TCIL (Telecommunication Consultancy of India Ltd) with its experience of reconstruction work in Kuwait and engineering giant Larsen & Toubro, according to industry bodies, stand a good chance to get contracts.

The general opinion is that Indian technology is good enough for Afghanistan. "Let's face it, they don't need an airport like in Hong Kong. What we have, say in Lucknow, will do for them," reasons an industry person.

There could, however, be many hurdles—to begin with, accessibility might be the biggest problem. India does not have a direct land trade route to the country. There are no air links either, though flights are planned from February. Iran is also scheduled to start a flight three times a week, servicing the three capitals.

Till that happens, business delegations planning to visit Kabul will have to charter a plane. And, says Sushanta Sen, deputy director general, CII: "There is so much enthusiasm among Indian businessmen that we might even be able to fill up a Boeing 747 to Kabul." The enthusiasm was evident from the numbers that turned up to hear the ambassador speak at a FICCI-organised meet and even when the Afghan minister for small-scale industry came to CII, he was thronged by businessmen desperate to hand their business cards to him.

But how much of the "cultural and historical links with India" will actually help Indians bag contracts, nobody can tell. Their leaders in Delhi might be cosying up to Indian businessmen, but how much of the disbursement of funds will be at their discretion is an unanswered question. Though McSweeney emphasises the importance of the Afghan leadership in driving recovery and reconstruction, only the coming months will make it clear where the balance tilts.

Global tenders are likely to come out in the next two to three months and according to industry bodies, if India can get 10 to 15 per cent of the aid package, it would be a lobbyist's job very well done.

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