Amitabh Kant: The Man of Action
Amitabh Kant seems to know the pulse of the nation. His India branding was rightly timed. And now when the whole nation seems upbeat about startups and Vocal for Local, he has taken it to a different level by involving startups across India and states in the Make in India initiative.
He’s not your regular Sarkari babu. He works even Saturdays to finish tasks and makes way for meetings that were due long. He has been the face startups recognize not just with Startup India and Make in India. Before he started working on these projects he has worked on successful campaigns like creating the image of India and states with the likes of “Incredible India” and “God’s Own Country” for Kerala, the state from where he passed the IAS cadre in 1980. He’s the one who’s has been known for the right branding at right time. He works to deliver or delivers for work. Even at the age of retirement, he seems to be gung-ho with not just his strong words but how can that be turned into action. This man has surely had a fool-proof plan. Amitabh Kant, CEO, NITI Aayog seems to know the pulse of the nation. His India branding was rightly timed. And now when the whole nation seems upbeat about startups and Vocal for Local, he has taken it to a different level by involving startups across India and states in the Make in India initiative. Looking at how he was moderating at Startup India by how he introduced startups in his classy way or how just like a class monitor he held all the joint secretaries answerable for the audience at large. Kant lives by the can-do attitude as he knows how to get things done. Here’s the Make in India man who’s also better known as the BFF of Startups.
How difficult it is to think entrepreneurial while being in the government? How do you think new every day?
An entrepreneur thinks about maximizing impact, scaling up, transforming lives and so do we. The only difference would be that while an entrepreneur may think of profit maximization, we in the government think of the larger good- growth, the progress of the country and the welfare of the citizens. We attempt to ensure that whatever we do through projects, policies and interventions, leads to the overall benefit of the country and its citizens. I read a lot of books, I spend time listening to presentations that are interesting and have out-of-the-box ideas and I like interacting with people - this allows me to broaden my horizon and think afresh and anew. Moreover, NITI Aayog is a vibrant, dynamic organization full of young professionals who generate a lot of new ideas.
What has been the most defining moment in your professional journey?
Having driven a number of initiatives - be it tourism campaigns such as God’s Own Country in Kerala and Incredible India at the national level, or the Make in India and Startup India initiatives, something that is extremely close to my heart has been the Aspirational Districts Program anchored at NITI Aayog. We took 112 districts that were once considered most backward in the country and we worked towards their transformation. We brought together central, state and district level agencies, we leveraged data to monitor outcomes and we collaborated with the private sector and NGOs to strengthen impact. Today, as per an independent UNDP assessment, these Aspirational Districts are doing better than the other districts of the country. This has been about driving an initiative that has impacted people at the grassroots level - and that is why I believe it has been the most defining moment of my professional journey. It has enabled me to transform lives.
What have been your learnings as the CEO?
Quite a few. The importance of disrupting the status quo using technology and digitization has been the most prominent. I have also learned that the true strength of a team lies in the diversity of their experiences, opinions and expertise. It is important to bring in domain experts and technologically-oriented resources who are passionate to leverage their expertise for development. This has been one of the major strengths of NITI Aayog - we have perhaps the highest number of lateral entrants and that has really improved our productivity and has led to the evolution of some truly path-breaking ideas. I have also seen that breaking down conventional chains of hierarchy and doing away with unnecessary red-tapism increases productivity multifold. I encourage officials, irrespective of their rank in NITI to just walk into my office with their ideas.
How would you define your management style?
I believe in the decentralization of work and I trust my team fully to deliver. Trust and decentralization are crucial aspects because they serve to empower and motivate your resources. If you do not centralize work, it allows your team members to take lead and that is hugely encouraging for them, as is trusting them to deliver. This allows them to put in their best performance, keeps them motivated and allows for the evolution of an organization that has a healthy work environment and is staffed with driven and motivated individuals.
What is the biggest challenge you are tackling in your current position?
As the CEO of NITI Aayog, an institution that was established to catalyze economic development and foster cooperative federalism, every assignment is unique and challenging in some way. India is a vast country and for us to succeed, we have to bring together the central, state, district and city level agencies together. This is a hugely challenging task but it is also an opportunity to maximize collective development impact. We have not only been able to leverage cooperative federalism, but also competitive federalism. I started with ranking states on Ease of Doing Business when I was Secretary of the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion. At NITI Aayog, we have developed a number of indices –from learning and health outcomes to water management, SDG index, innovation and work are going on to introduce them in more areas such as clean mobility and compliance burden. These rankings have helped states to compete in a healthy spirit with each other to improve their rankings, and in the process, improve the quality of life for their citizens.
As a leader, how do you ensure that the vision gets converted into reality and brings changes on the ground?
This is only possible when you are able to bring everyone together for the larger yet common goal of working for the betterment of the country. I strongly believe in teamwork. I do not believe that work done or initiatives taken in silos can have a real impact. Therefore, I have always brought together various levels of the government - right from central line ministries to urban local bodies as well as the industry, the private sector, international development agencies and NGOs to all work together and build on each other’s capabilities to maximize impact. A great example of this was when I worked with traditional fishermen in Kerala and now our success in the Aspirational Districts Program.
Where do Startup India and Make in India converge?
They converge where the innovations, technologies and processes developed by startups feed into the industry- the large manufacturers. We already have examples where AI-based solutions designed by startups are being used to streamline manufacturing and digital solutions are powering our supply chain. This needs to grow. When we started StartupIndia in 2016, I had never imagined that we will produce 33 unicorns in a short while in just 2021. On average, three startups are turning Unicorns every month. This is a phenomenal trend and the government is fully committed to supporting the startups. I am of the firm belief that startups will define and lead India’s growth story going forward. We are well poised to become the largest startup ecosystem in the world.
What do you count as your productivity hack?
I start my day early, do a good amount of physical exercise and focus on prioritizing my tasks, even though I multitask. This allows me to spend greater time and effort on issues that are important and require immediate attention while not completely ignoring the other tasks at hand. I assign tasks and leave them to the team leader to deliver. It is very important to have a team that understands each other’s style of functioning, and I am fortunate to have such a team.
What do you see as the sunrise areas of growth for the Indian economy to become a global leader?
If you look at some of the most successful countries which were able to witness sustained growth over long horizons, they all had one thing in common - they dared to venture into the sunrise areas of growth and were able to champion these areas. I strongly believe that the future for India lies in sunrise areas of growth. These are Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G, Clean Mobility, Advanced Cell Chemistry (ACC) Batteries, Genomics and Green Hydrogen. A PLI scheme for ACC batteries has already been announced - this is likely to lead to the establishment of ACC Giga Factories. Now, the Prime Minister has also announced the National Hydrogen Mission. We import fossil fuel worth USD 160 Bn. This will double in a decade. The Hydrogen Mission will enable us to become self-dependent and industrialize on clean fuels. These are new areas of growth and will be great enablers for India to grow and prosper. India must go digital, it must go green.