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India Inc feasts on charm

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By PIYA SINGH in Mumbai
  • Published 18.07.09
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Mumbai, July 18: The much-awaited visit of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton got off to an early start in the commercial capital over breakfast with the doyens of India Inc.

The chefs at the Taj Mahal Palace & Towers had prepared several delicacies for the power pow wow. The dishes remained untouched because there was too much food for thought.

“Nobody ate breakfast. We were riveted by this charismatic lady in strawberry pink and simply couldn’t do anything else but listen to her,” said Swati Piramal, director of Piramal Healthcare and one of the women CEOs invited to the closed-door meeting.

Piramal described the US secretary of state as a wonderful and knowledgeable leader who was very comfortable with diverse subjects like health, education, micro-finance and renewable energy.

Clinton, who was seated at the head table with two of India’s most influential business leaders — Ratan Naval Tata, chairman of the Tata group, and Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries Ltd — chose to steer clear of what was widely expected from her: a discussion on defence and the nuclear agreement.

Neither did she delve into the economic downturn at length.

Instead, in a session titled Corporate Social Responsibility that lasted a little over an hour, Clinton interacted with CEOs of Indian companies about what India Inc was doing on the ground to improve the well-being of the disadvantaged.

“Several of us talked about what our organisations were doing in the field of CSR. Mr Tata, in his usual understated style, said the Tata group spent $93 million on CSR,” said one of those present.

“Mr Ambani stressed how India could leapfrog with the assistance of technology. He also shared with us how Reliance was instrumental in empowering the farmer through the retail revolution,” another invitee said.

Clinton was suitably impressed. “She came out of the meeting electrified after she heard tales about how all these Indian corporates were contributing to the bottom of the pyramid,” Piramal said.

Clinton keenly discussed the impact of climate change on the world economy, the development of green technology and how it was a subject of great importance to the Barack Obama administration.

In response to an observation from one of those present that the West was responsible for some of the problems that the world was facing today, Clinton apparently said: “I hope you don’t make the same mistake.”

It was evident that Clinton was very keen to interact, during this trip to Mumbai, with women CEOs who were contributing to the social sector, said a person who attended the meeting. She was especially interested in issues like women’s education and health. A brief from her office had specifically enquired about the possibility of meeting women CEOs who had a strong social sector background, said a person who was involved in the arrangements for her visit.

Among those present were ICICI Bank MD Chanda Kochhar, Infosys founder Narayana Murthy’s wife Sudha, SBI chairman .P. Bhatt, Jamshyd Godrej of Godrej & Boyce and Indian Hotels vice-chairman R.K. Krishna Kumar.