Economically speaking, can India become the next China?
That was the question underneath a lot of conversations at the recent Plastindia 2015 trade fair in Gandhinagar.
Not that India will follow China's path, it has its own model.
But for global businesses, it's very tantalizing to analyze the possibility of 1.2 billion Indians (or even a few hundred million Indians) doing what China has done in the last 20 or 30 years. A big new economic frontier.
Right now, India punches below its weight as far as plastics. India's per person use of plastics is only 10 kilograms a year, which is one-third of Brazil, one-fourth of China and one-tenth of the U.S.
The government has big goals. Last year new Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a “Make in India” campaign whose stated goal is to “transform India into a global manufacturing hub.”
Sound too ambitious? I remember going to Plastindia in 2009 and seeing many optimistic advertisements by the show organizers saying India would be a “global plastics processing hub” by 2012. That didn't happen.
But fear not, the potential's there. One of the best examples of that manufacturing promise came last year when India sent its Mangalyaan satellite to Mars for $74 million.
That's less than the $100 million Hollywood spent to make the movie “Gravity” and about 10 percent of what it cost NASA to send its own Maven satellite to Martian orbit last year.
If you don't believe me, Google it and see international media make that connection.
I saw the same kind of low-cost innovation potential in the plastics industry. Foreign plastics companies like Milacron LLC and Toshiba Machine have made big investments there, banking on big growth.
Milacron's global injection machine design unit is led by an Indian national from the company's Ahmedabad, India, factory.
A lot of sectors in India, from packaging to automotive, are ripe for development. India's cars use just a fraction of the engineering plastics in cars in developed markets, so you have a sort of double-whammy of the economic potential of more cars, and growth in the amount of plastics in each car.
Not that I got to ride much in cars while I was there.
This year the Plastindia show moved to Gandhinagar, outside Ahmedabad. Taxis were non-existent, and every day we'd take an auto rickshaw back and forth the 25 kilometers from the hotel to the show grounds.
I remember one ride home, sharing a rickshaw on the 35-40 minute trip with an Indian engineer whose company sells auto parts to rickshaw manufacturers.
He mentioned to me, casually, that the rickshaws had no structural support. If we were in an accident, there would be pounds of sheet metal coming straight at us.
Comforting, I thought, as we dodged trucks, motorbikes and the occasional camel-drawn cart.
India's always interesting.
There's great food, much of it vegetarian, so you feel like it's better for your health and the planet. The owners of my hotel were devout vegetarians and did not serve any meat to guests.
Another common business travel staple was hard to get. Gujarat, where the show was held, is a dry state. You can only buy alcohol if you have a license — so I got a license, more as a souvenir than anything else.
(I should say that I learned from going to a small party in someone's private house, alcohol still seems to be pretty widely available in Ahmedabad.)
Can I call that a contradiction? I think so. But it's those things you remember.
On a more serious note, I think India's plastics industry has its own big contradiction I've noticed on my five trips there.
There's constant talk of the potential of the country and Indian manufacturers. But there's always talk about how India's machine manufacturers and processors need protection from foreign imports. The industry frequently asks the government for higher tariffs, arguing they're being overwhelmed by foreign competition.
It points to the larger contradiction in India. There's a lot of potential and some very good companies. But there are still many bottlenecks that keep companies from being as competitive as their counterparts in other countries. That surely stands in the way of India being the global manufacturing hub it aspires to.
One thing's for sure, though: the world's plastics industry is increasingly watching India.
Toloken is Plastics News' news editor-international.