August 2015 \ Interviews \ Key Business Interview
“Make in India should propel exports”

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” —John Quincy Adams -> Interview with Mr Ajay Sahai, Director General and CEO, Federation of Indian Export Organizations

  • Mr Ajay Sahai, Director General and CEO, FIEO

For all those who regularly drive down towards the airport from south Delhi, the blue and grey-tinged Niryat Bhawan, an impressive edifice that houses the Federation of Indian Export Organizations (FIEO), is not to be missed. On this glassy building’s top floor sits the organization’s sharp-thinking DG and CEO, Mr Ajay Sahai, a man whose decade-long tenure with FIEO has coincided with a marked growth in the fortunes of the Indian export industry. When he joined the FIEO in 2005, after serving a number of years at the Directorate General of Foreign Trade as a Joint DG, the organization’s membership base of exporters was around 7,000. It is a tribute to Mr Sahai’s leadership skills and organizational acumen that today that base has more than tripled to 22,000, positioning FIEO as a powerhouse, and placing it among the most sought after chambers in the country. FIEO works closely and in conjunction with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in order to boost Indian exports, and helps earn valuable foreign exchange for the country. Significantly, over 70 per cent of all exports in the country are carried out by those who are members of FIEO.

Mr Sahai, though, is particularly modest, almost to the point of being self-effacing, and dismisses the notion that the organization’s turnaround has anything to do with the particular chair he occupies. “It comes from the way you lead the people,” he says, adding philosophically, “you do not necessarily have to be a boss in order to be a leader.” To that extent, it his own inspiring conduct, his indefatigable energy and almost interminably long hours of hard work, and complete command over the export management and international trade terrain, that has made him stand tall, and lead from the front. Industry and Business Houses respect him, Government values his views—he has been on several prestigious Government committees and assignments—and the Media relentlessly seeks him out for his observations on the financial sector. And when your own colleagues in the organization speak well of you, something must be really right about the way you lead them. John Quincy Adams’ words on “actions inspiring others to dream more” particularly hold good for the tall Mr Sahai. What stands out during a conversation with him is his world view, clarity of thought, and deep global understanding of his field.

His world view and understanding come as no surprise because he is indeed very widely travelled. Except for having stepped on the icy shores of Antarctica, he has been to every other continent in the world, and across countless countries several times over, the nature of his job being such. He enjoys the challenge that comes with the demands of his work, where problems need attention in real time. In spite of his hectic work schedule—he attends an average of 3 meetings daily, addressing anywhere between 50 and 75 people in each, besides attending a minimum of 7–8 individual visitors a day, and, of course, carrying out regular office work—he squeezes time out to read up, occasionally catch up on a blockbuster movie, do an hour or so of Yoga every day, and embellish his intellect with the enduring wisdom of Chanakya. He speaks to India Empire’s Editor Sayantan Chakravarty at his office on subjects close to his heart

You have been associated for long with the Export Industry. You have worked closely with Commodity Boards, Banks, EPCs, DGFT. You are widely travelled. What is it that you love most about your work?

I think that the basic thing that I love about my work is the challenge that it brings. Every day you encounter a new problem, and you are required to evaluate the problem, find solutions, and somehow impress upon the other party—which may at times be the Government—to agree. I like the diversity that the job brings, because it is the diversity that keeps me on my heels. I have to be constantly updated on various developments that are happening across the globe. So mentally I have to be very active. That gives me a lot of satisfaction.

What is the forecast for exports in fiscal 2015 – 2016?

This will be a challenging year for Indian exports. First of all, global trade is forecasted to grow by less than 3 per cent, and any decline in global trade impacts India’s exports. Secondly, we feel that prices of commodities, crude and metal will continue to be lower, and that will be translated into finished products resulting in less exports. Thirdly, we feel that many of the economies—not just the advanced ones but also the emerging economies—are slowing down. And with uncertainty looming large, everybody is cutting on expenditure. Economies, particularly in Latin America, CIS and the Middle East that were driving high on commodity prices have taken a hit. Globally we feel this trend may continue through 2015-16, though, of course, indications are that the situation may start looking better October onwards. At the moment, the order booking position of Indian corporate houses is not very promising. We did a survey for around 400 companies for the first 2 months of this fiscal, that is April and May, and found that while 15 per cent of companies had a better order booking position compared to last year, for 80 per cent the position was less than what it was last year. For the rest 5 per cent, a status quo was maintained. This is an indication that things may not be as bright as everybody expected them to be. But I would say that these kinds of cycles happen in international trade, I think we have to live with them. Our bigger challenge lies at the domestic front, and, therefore, while the global situation will improve, we have to make efforts to address domestic issues. Because ultimately when the global scenario improves and we have not been able to address our domestic issues, our competitiveness will be affected.

You have had a vast experience in the field of Export Management and International Trade. According to you what are the prime factors that determine a growth in exports, or conversely a dip in exports?

In the Indian context it is the manufacturing that drives exports, though, of course, people say that exchange rates play a very vital role. Exchange rate is one of the components in the competiveness of exports, but unless you generate surplus or produce quality products you will not be in the field of exports. There is a direct relationship between manufacturing growth and export growth. All the years that manufacturing has done well, exports have picked up pace, barring a short period between 2008 and 2009 when there was a general global slowdown. Of course there is a time gap, for instance you may be manufacturing in July, and exporting in October or November. So for me the best will be to propel manufacturing. That is why we are pinning our hopes on Make in India, because if that succeeds, automatically exports will receive a push. We are of the view that we should not pursue Make in India merely as a strategy, but as a Mission. Let us also look at things this way, Make in India on the one hand will help propel exports, but more importantly it will allow the country to move surplus agriculture workers into manufacturing as well. Only then can we be looking at inclusive growth. You cannot move agriculture workers to services, since services sector normally provide white collar jobs. So, for meeting my broad objective of inclusive growth and social transformation, I want to employ these workers in manufacturing. Also land size is going down, productivity is on the decline and automation is taking over. I want to absorb these workers in the manufacturing sector.

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