The Wilberforce Society | Haroun Mahmud
21
archive,author,author-harounmahmud,author-21,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,vertical_menu_enabled,qode-theme-ver-10.0,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-4.12,vc_responsive

Author: Haroun Mahmud

‘Wilberforce Watch’ is a new series, where we interview the Executive Committee, Editors and authors of The Wilberforce Society to give you a greater insight into the interesting work they do.

This week, we caught up with Alicia Loh, one of TWS’s Deputy Directors of Policy, who first joined the Society as an Editor. Here are some of the questions we put to her and her answers.

Alicia Loh

When did you first become involved with TWS and in what ways have you been involved since?

I joined TWS as an Editor in November 2015, and took on a paper on facilitating innovation in India. I am now Deputy Director of Policy, and am currently taking care of four papers.

What have you enjoyed/beneftted from most through your involvement with TWS?

Being a part of TWS has been an incredible experience, from the work and research itself, to the people that I have gotten to know through the society. I have learned much, not just about the specific topics I have worked on, but also about policy-making. It has made me realise that even as students, we need to be engaged in current issues as we have the power to effect change, and we bring new, innovative ideas to the table.

What words of advice would you give to students who are considering joining TWS in whatever capacity but fear they don’t know enough about it or that they don’t have the relevant skills/expertise?

There are opportunities at every level to participate in TWS activities. You could join as a writer or editor if you are keen in learning more about a particular issue, and the amount of responsibility you take on depends on how much you want to put in. There are also plenty of events you can take part in, including conferences, policy presentations, and socials.

Following the presentation of the paper, Innovations in Developing Countries: The Startup Ecosystem in India by a team of dedicated writers at The Wilberforce Society, which included a talk by Dr Jaideep Prahbu, Jawaharlal Nehru Professor of Indian Business & Enterprise at the Judge Business School, the writers were invited to take part in Innovate for India, a conference organised by India Global, a UK based think-tank.

The conference lasted two days from the 13th – 14th of May 2016 and attracted venture capitalists, angel investors and notable academics from the UK and India. Among the audience, was also present the Innovation Society, Government of Andhra Pradesh, one of the first of India’s 29 states to come up with an innovation policy to embrace the startup culture in India. It was an important and timely event given the boom in early-stage companies in India and the policy paper was highly commended for its fresh outlook on the issue. To refresh your memory, here is a link to our previous blogpost. The highly anticipated paper is due to publish in September 2016 as the team is currently working on the feedback it received from its presentations and the academics present at the Innovate for India conference.

'Innovate for India' conference poster

The Wilberforce Society is a non-partisan, student-run think-tank based in the UK. It seeks to promote constructive and intelligent debate both within and without the University of Cambridge, offering undergraduates and graduates alike the opportunity to become involved with policy conception and analysis with the possibility of creating profound and genuine impact. The Society follows an independent policy agenda set by the Executive Committee but also carries out commissions for external organisations, which in the past has included both Houses of the British Parliament.

The Society is always keen to hear from students about their suggestions for policy papers and gives them the opportunity to contribute in the initial stages as well as later on, as authors and editors. The impactful nature of TWS’s work can be seen from the positive reception they received from the Government of Andhra Pradesh, with the CEO of the Innovation Ministry of Andhra Pradesh offering the policy paper team internships in their government.

 

By Haroun Mahmud

On 22 April 2016, The Wilberforce Society met in Keynes Hall, King’s College Cambridge and held a policy paper presentation about ‘The Startup Ecosystem in India’. The paper presentation was the culmination of the research and writing undertaken by a group of Cambridge students. The authors of the paper are: Sarah Wong, Pranjal Bajaj, Charlotte Grace, Vanya Kumar, Viva Avasthi and Ruby Stewart-Liberty, with Alicia Loh as editor.

The paper provides policy suggestions to the incumbent Government of India, which has taken a pro-startup stance and evaluates the effectiveness of some of its current policies.

The team invited Dr Jaideep Prahbu, Jawaharlal Nehru Professor of Indian Business & Enterprise, to give a speech on his views on the paper. His comments are summarised below.

At the start, Dr Prahbu congratulated the team on a very well-researched and informative paper. He commended in particular the accuracy of the ideas presented within it, noting that a few weeks ago during a trip to India he met entrepreneurs whose sentiments he felt were reflected in this paper.

He noted that in India much potential continues to be unrealised. The ecosystem seems to hold Indian people back.Innovation in Developing Countries - Startups in India

As a university student at IIT Delhi in the late Eighties, many of his peers were intent on leaving the country, to seek opportunities abroad which they felt were lacking at home. But since the Eighties and Nineties, young people are still leaving India but – rather than intending on starting a life abroad – they wish to gain skills and return back home. This has been called ‘brain gain’ or ‘brain circulation’.

Entrepreneurship in India continues to be elitist; investors, with some but not complete justification, target people from certain institutions such as IIT.

There is some progress to diversify investment. Kerala recently opened its first Fab lab, a small-scale workshop offering personal digital fabrication, an idea which originated from America’s MIT.

Eluding to Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s 1975 non-fiction book, Dr Prabhu suggested that Indians need more ‘Freedoms at Midnight’. Bureaucracy can be incredibly stifling to startup, not least the tax system. India collects tax through the TDS (Tax Deducted at Source) method and getting a rebate can be an incredible hassle. Bureaucrats, although committed and intelligent, are very risk-averse, making them a hindrance to business and innovation. With politicians breathing down their necks and the press operating in a sensationalist fashion, one can perhaps excuse them, but not without realising that a change is needed.

Dr Prahbu pointed out that is far better to work in a decentralised way, working with states rather than through central government. Narenda Modi, the current Prime Minister of India, made good use of this decentralised method as a Chief Minister of one such state, Gujarat, but is finding less success deploying similar tactics for the whole country in central government. This is because national politics is much more consensual, requiring the agreement of many scores of people, unlike the more streamlined state-level governance.

The paper’s findings

The research paper outlined some of the factors hindering entrepreneurship, classifying them into four main categories, nominally: a) culture and education; b) funding; c) tax and regulation hurdles and d) is there even a market?

Unsurprisingly, with a country as vast and therefore as varied as India, there is considerable disparity between the different regions. In some regions for example, the lower castes suffer from a lack of good network connections. Students from outside the IITs (India’s Ivy League-style elite university institutions) find difficulty to access funding, due to a bias among investors to favour the latter. The preoccupation with rote learning curtails the potential for innovation and new ways of thinking so crucial to entrepreneurship.

India’s cultural, regulatory and economic environment combine to induce a lack of investor confidence. There is an overly fragmented and complex tax structure, with dissimilarities in regulations across regions and sectors.

What is India doing?

Despite the obstacles outlined above, India is making strides to enhance and encourage entrepreneurial activity. For example, there are seven new research parks as well as 35 new incubators. To circumvent the restrictive tax regimes of old, tax exemptions have been offered to startups for the first three years as well as an eighty percent rebate on patent applications filed by startups.

Policy recommendations

The paper’s policy recommendations are wide-ranging, focusing on how the government can help startups from the very beginning of their ventures throughout the process.

They can be categorised in four main ways: firstly, through securing support for startups; secondly, giving them the support they need to work with confidence; thirdly, minimising the red-tape and finally, widening opportunities to those typically left out.

The government can use state media to provide leverage to the existing programmes and initiatives as well as encouraging and legislating for firms to sponsor the most promising young entrepreneurs from local universities (not the IITs) as part of their corporate social responsibility mandate.

Providing startups with support can also be done by encouraging early stage funding through regulation as well as straightening investor protection.

The simplification and consolidation of both the tax and procurement systems will remove the hesitance which many currently feel.

The paper suggests the adoption of the ethos ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ [together with all, development for all], which was in fact a key poll slogan for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Entrepreneurship and innovation can be integrated into India’s wider development agenda of inclusive growth through an affirmative action-based approach, by catering to the marginalised sections of society.