Extract from The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance, 2013
New Delhi, July 2010.
The bus weaves miles across the far fringes of Heathrow’s tarmac with CEOs and chairmen clinging to straps like tourists being driven to a charter flight. We reach a souped-up portacabin labelled the Queen’s Suite, and after the quickest check in I have ever experienced, board a BA jumbo jet, chartered by Her Majesty’s Government for their trade mission to India.
We land en route in Istanbul, and there pick up David Cameron. As we wait for him, I chat to Vince Cable, the Business Secretary. I bring up peak oil. He tells me he doesn’t believe the below ground arguments on supply constraint, and is much more worried about above ground factors. I remind myself that he was once Chief Economist at Shell.
Flying over Iran, I stand talking to the former Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Defence. He assures us Iranian anti-aircraft missiles can’t reach this high. If they could, and they fired one, they would make one hell of a story. A Prime Minister and half a dozen ministers are aboard, not to mention 29 captains of industry. Or perhaps more accurately, 28 captains of industry and me.
Dehli. A meeting at the Indian Chamber of Commerce. Almost the entire UK business delegation sit’s across a very long table from just four Indian civil servants. We hear the most senior Indian describe his government’s plan for 10% GDP growth every year until 2020. It is painstaking, impressive in a way.
If you do that, I sit thinking, and China does something similar, and you keep going after coal the way you are, then you compound the greenhouse gases the rich nations have already pumped into the atmosphere and we lose a liveable future. It’s as simple as that.
But the discussion focuses on how the two nations might collaborate, to mutual benefit, in the search for the 10% growth. This mission is all about access for UK plc to the mass markets of the rising Indian middle class.
There are several bank bosses in the room. The Barclays CEO, John Varley, launches into a pitch for the Indians to open up their financial services markets to British banks.
I study an ink mark on the table in front of me. I wonder what would happen to me if I said out loud what is in my mind.
Do you think they are crazy?
I risk a look at the Indian civil servants. They are doing fairly well as diplomats, but nonetheless unspoken words are written all over their faces.
Do you think we are crazy?
There is something post-colonial about this whole exercise. I can feel the resentment just below the surface in almost all the Indian officials and business people I talk to.
In a small meeting on solar, it surfaces. The Indian environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, and his British equivalent, Greg Barker, lead a condensed discussion. Half a dozen or so business people on each side are able to make short statements. I am one of them. The ministers then sum up.
Greg Barker does the best job he can, in the circumstances.
Jairam Ramesh has a reputation for being blunt. He ends the meeting by telling Barker that he shouldn’t be under any illusions that the UK’s colonial past gives us any special rights in access to Indian markets.
We get delegations coming here all the time, Ramesh says. He names a few countries that have been in town recently.
You have to tell us what your unique selling points are, he continues, with a didactic edge. I haven’t heard any. Other than perhaps this gentleman’s solar rooftiles.
He points at me.
I could quite see those on the rooftops of Indian cities, he adds.
I counsel myself against getting excited. I have seen enough to know what Ramesh is probably thinking.
So long as they are made in India.