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Opinion: Could we be missing a trick in India?

I meet Indian-born, Kiwi-educated entrepreneur Vinny Lohan in Mumbai, in the opulent surroundings of the Taj Palace Hotel, the black stone Victorian pile where an army of liveried staff tends to the pampered guests’ every need.

Like being handed a towel to dry your hands after a trip to the palatial lavatories. Immediately outside the heavily secured grounds, the hard scrabble of life for Indians at the bottom of the country’s 1.3 billion-strong social heap is confronting.

Bare-bottomed, dirty footed toddlers wriggle in their mothers’ laps on the pavement. Families sleep on threadbare cotton sheets on the hard ground, and beg from the procession of tourists. “Mr Modi will lift them up,” a cultured local tells me, over a glass of Australian Viognier. It’s a reference to new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose election in May is behind a surge in optimism among Indians, who had despaired of the country’s drift under the previous dynastic, Congress Party-led government.

It’s an optimism Lohan shares. He has returned to this “new” India, after moving to to New Zealand with his parents in his teens, taking an engineering degree, and founding two social enterprises aimed at improving the lot of India’s poor.

(One of his inventions, OneBeep, provided internet connectivity in villages using radios; the other, OneBuzz, improved the effectiveness of anti-malarial spraying programmes. Each of these either won, or were placed, in Microsoft global innovation challenges.)

When it came time to start a real business, Lohan decided he couldn’t afford to pay New Zealand tech wages, so he moved back to India, where he lives and works with a small team of developers in what sounds like a Mumbai version of the sitcom Silicon Valley.

(His latest concept is elusive, but imagine a platform that ordered every Google search you ever made on a particular subject into something more coherent than a list of URLs, and organized them on whatever device you happened to be using at the time.)

Smart, sharp, intense and almost scarily focused, Lohan remembers New Zealand as “heaven” compared to the challenges of life in India. And it’s not just him. The goodwill towards this country is palpable.

It could be the shared love of cricket, it may help that we’re not British, or it could just be, as Lohan suggests, that being white still gives you an advantage, despite it being more than 60 years since India gained independence from the British.

Whatever the reason, doors opened at the highest levels of Indian industry for the tiny New Zealand trade mission I accompanied, as I tried to get a grasp on the Modi phenomenon.

With two-way trade of just over $1 billion, India is this country’s 18th largest trading partner. Yet it has an economy and population comparable to that of China, which is New Zealand’s biggest trade partner, with annual two-way trade topping $20 billion. The potential for the Indian relationship to be far larger than it is at present is obvious – albeit that as the world’s largest producer of dairy products, the country isn’t keen on competition from Fonterra under a free trade agreement.

If smart, entrepreneurial people like Vinny Lohan are right, now is the time to be taking advantage of the Indian market. After a decade of stagnation and looking inwards, India is on the move. It will never be as organized as China – democracies aren’t like that. But its chaos may also be masking opportunity for New Zealand in a country with 130 million English speakers.

India was the subject of the New Zealand government’s first “NZ Inc” strategy, back in 2011, but it fell into a hole last year after attempts to get a free trade agreement under way all but petered out.

It’s now time to dust off that work. The rest of the world has noticed that India is awake. As the debate about New Zealand’s over-reliance ade with China heats up, India can be part of the answer. We risk missing a trick if we don’t re-engage vigorously and soon.

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