Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) Chairman, Harish Manwani, while addressing shareholders at the company’s 79th Annual General Meeting (AGM) held at Mumbai today spoke about the exciting growth opportunity in Rural India and how it is becoming the epicenter of India’s growth story.
In the speech titled ‘Rural India – An Emerging Powerhouse,’ Manwani said, “It is often said that there are two Indias – Bharat which exists in the villages and India which thrives in the urban areas. If our country has to have real progress and make its mark on the global stage, then these two Indias must converge. Prosperity will have to come to our villages, towns and cities.”
Agriculture and Beyond
Referring to the good progress made in the last two decades in Rural India, Manwani spoke about how there was new hope and a new sense of energy driving rural India. Drawing attention to the pressures that rural growth would bring on natural resources, Manwani said, “The explosion in rural consumption and growing competition for scarce resources demands that we embrace a new collaborative model of development. All stakeholders – government, NGOs, civil society and corporates – have a role in enabling this growth while overcoming the attendant challenges. With the right kind of public-private partnerships we can address these challenges by finding innovative solutions and build on the opportunities.”
He also spoke about the various challenges facing rural India. Speaking about the need to improve our agricultural productivity levels, Manwani said, “Consider that if only our agricultural growth can pick up to 4% as envisioned by the Planning Commission, the cascading impact that rural prosperity will have on the national economy could add up to an additional 2% to our national GDP growth and enable us to go for double digit growth.”
Manwani urged for the need to go beyond agriculture for rural India to achieve accelerated and sustainable growth. He called for a new vision for agriculture in India on the lines of the New Vision for Agriculture (NVA) articulated by the World Economic Forum which envisions a global agriculture system that harnesses the power of markets and multi-stakeholder collaboration to feed the world, protect our planet and create prosperity.
Manwani spoke about five key enablers that would over time help build an ecosystem that can harness the real power of rural India, going much beyond agriculture. The five key enablers are: Access to Urban India, Technology Adoption, Financial Inclusion, Education & Health, and Skill Building.
He spoke about how access to urban services had led to significantly higher level of knowledge and new sources of livelihood in villages located in 19 R-Urban (Rural-Urban) clusters such as the National Capital Region which has emerged as a single geographical entity from Meerut in UP to Faridabad in Haryana. He said, “creating another 50 R-Urban hubs where every village is within one hour of travel time to an urban centre would be transformational. This could ensure that more than 2/3rd of the rural population has easy access to urban India. These urban hubs will support rural areas and become the big markets of tomorrow.”
Referring to the potential of technology to dismantle social and cultural barriers to ensure not only quality of services but also equality of access to all, Manwani spoke about how The Aadhaar scheme could transform livelihoods, particularly for those residing in remote villages. Manwani spoke about how lack of access to capital was one of the most serious deterrents to development in rural India. “Access to formal banking would not only eliminate unbearable debt for the poor but also bring capital investments into rural. This would improve agricultural productivity and also help in building SSEs and other commercial ventures, “ he said. He urged for the need to move much faster to bring the entire rural population within the coverage of formal banking.
Speaking about the country’s progressive policies and programmes to promote education, Manwani called for more consistent implementation of these programmes. He spoke about the need for rigorous accountability and sharing of best practices to raise the quality of programme execution. He spoke about how e-learning can transform the access and cost of education while improving the quality of teaching to the masses. He also spoke about drawing on the lessons from the good work done by NGOs in the area of education and called for forming a network between NGOs and government to leverage best practices on a national scale.
Manwani identified appropriate skill building as a crucial need for the rural economy for generating income opportunities. “Preparing young people for roles in the flourishing retail, BPO, hospitality and other service related industries will be very important. Just as the ITIs in the 60s & 70s built industrial skills and prepared young people for roles in the manufacturing industry, we now need to set up institutions that build similar skills to prepare our rural youth for manufacturing and service industries,” he said. He argued for the need for industry to take the lead in not only setting up the right programmes but also providing opportunities for training and employment to catalyse this.
HUL’s association with rural India
Manwani spoke about the importance of rural India for Hindustan Unilever. “More than 40% of our products are consumed in the fast growing markets of rural India. We have been pioneers in developing rural markets through affordable brands and an unparalleled distribution reach, “ he said.
Manwani spoke about how HUL is bringing alive the spirit of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan to holistically contribute to the social, economic and environmental agenda with a significant impact on rural India. He spoke about how the company was working with small holder tomato farmers in Karnataka, Punjab and Maharashtra to help them adopt sustainable agricultural practices. “We have initiated work to encourage the adoption of sustainable farming practices by our suppliers of tea, fruits and other vegetables both for India and other Unilever markets,” he said.
Referring to Project Shakti, Manwani spoke about how it created income generating opportunities for 45,000 rural impoverished women and has also helped to increase the rural distribution of the Company. “Project Shakti is an excellent example of ‘doing well by doing good’,” he said.
Speaking about Pureit, Manwani referred to the launch of Pureit sachet and how it would help in a big way to make safe drinking water accessible & affordable to millions of consumers in India.