SOCIO-ECONOMIC VOICES

-Ujjwala Singhania,President, FICCI FLO
MSME Industry Needs Better Support, Timely Action from Govt
"investing in Women is Crucial to the Development"

MS: On behalf of IndiaStat, I would like to congratulate you for taking charge as the 38th President of FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO) in May 2021. As per belief and words 'Women's economic participation along with their increased ownership and control of productive assets will speed up the development of India and Women-led development will pave the way for self-reliant India in true sense.' How do you plan to achieve the same - say across the next one year? And what five core nationwide steps will be taken towards this?

US: It's no brainer that investing in women is crucial to development and yet, women continue to face many barriers in contributing to and benefiting from development. We need to address these challenges faced by women. While the economy, the political system and the nation in general is going through a social change of acceptance of women as “Drivers” of this change, it is time for women to also take on this responsibility. Available data speaks volumes of the power, ability, grit, perseverance and determination of the female spirit.

FICCI Ladies Organisation recognizes the benefits of Education & Skill development as a powerful and effective way to address women empowerment and global poverty. Women Empowerment initiatives are the primary focus and every effort to bridge the gap and include women into mainstream is continuous by FLO. We at FLO put a lot of emphasis on women’s development through capacity building, skill development, entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, as we believe that this is what leads to social progress in society. Challenging the stereotypes by women is necessary and hence, we focus on initiatives in the areas of education / skilling, entrepreneurship development and health to make them economically independent as we see it as a social investment in the society.

I think today's women are redesigning the world economy with their noticeable contributions in every chosen field. I say this with conviction and belief that women have been contributing plenty for not just the economy but also for the development of the society for the last many years now. FLO has been working towards this since its inception, and it’s not just about the one year of presidentship at FLO. We must remember that much is not possible in one year. Most of our initiatives, projects and works are WIP. My specific focus has been to increase the participation of women in Industry, trade, start-ups and giving larger thrust in these initiatives. All such initiatives are taken up by our Pan-India Chapters to have a larger impact.

Noteworthy among the various initiatives that FLO has worked on, the FLO Industrial Park is a huge step in bringing women-run businesses to the fore. E.g. We’ve set up 100% women owned FLO Industrial Park in Hyderabad and brought in investment of about Rs.250 Crs and expect to generate 15-1800 employment in the next 3 years, most of whom will be women. This is the first 100% Women Owned Industrial Park for FLO & FICCI. The 50 Acre Industrial Park has 25 manufacturing Units established by FLO Members, all belonging to the green industry category ranging from packaging, food processing, electronics, nutraceuticals and medical devices etc. Once the pandemic situation improves, we will be inaugurating the Park. 40% of the Units have already come up. Such projects don’t happen in one year, but take a few years to see light. We see tremendous potential and need for such women dedicated Industrial Parks, where women can have their own space to build and grow their businesses. This year we are hoping to set up similar FLO Industrial Parks in some other states and work for this has already begun.

We have started work on building a trade network for both Urban and Non-Urban Women owned businesses. At the urban level, we have been doing workshops and seminars with the World Bank, ADB & the many Trade Promotion offices of various countries. Our focus has been and will continue to be to promote women’s current business and explore and promote new businesses. We have a couple other similar projects in the pipeline to make it inclusive for both the Urban and Non-Urban Women.

We are also doing a lot of work to build and support women in the Start-up ecosystem. We aim to assist and help these businesses succeed. We have over 400 women registered with us who are looking for learning, support and mentoring at various levels to build and scale their projects.

MS: Under your leadership, FLO is planning interventions towards fostering larger contributions of women in India’s Industrial and economic growth story. What would be the first and foremost five to seven necessary steps that will be taken in this regard, considering the socio-economic crisis the nation is facing?

US: Firstly, at FLO we look at the economic crisis as an opportunity rather than a problem. True, 2020 was like a dark year for not just India but globally too, with societies, businesses & economy severely challenged. Though the Indian government has stepped in, unfortunately it’s not substantial and recovery still seems muted, slow and uncertain. Today the MSME Industry Community feels the need for larger support and timely action from the Govt.

Even as GDP is slipping, there are many listed companies who are reporting good profits, (like steel, banks, metals), but the MSME sector is hurting hugely. We are not sure as yet if PLI is generating enough jobs or business to replenish what’s lost to Covid / growth slowdown. This is being termed as K Shape recovery. Yet, there are many questions still in the air. How large is the lower part of the K? When will we begin the Upturn? Many MSMEs, SMEs and the small shop owners have lost their livelihood for the last 15 months now, when will they see the light? Consumption has come down drastically.

True, the MSME sector has been badly hit in these last 18 months, but we Indians have resilience in us to rise and be positive. With that approach, we have been doing Trade promotion related workshops and seminars, not just with GOI but also with Trade offices of other countries that will help our members’ businesses to revive. The Industrial Park project at Hyderabad is an effort in this direction and our efforts to establish similar FLO Industrial Parks in some chapters is a big and affirmative step in this effort. The presence of a large number of women workforces at the Industrial Park is a big step. With more women in the workforce, it definitely helps the change in communities.

I believe that Capacity building at Leadership level for women is crucial to keep the momentum of this effort going. To address this, we have been training the 1st batch of 25 women to be Certified Independent Board Directors. We hope to start another batch soon. I do believe that larger participation of women at various levels of Leadership, Boardroom and Industry will bring in the much-needed Social Change for India. And with substantial Govt. support to women through benefit schemes and women focused & friendly policies, India can definitely play a Leadership Role in the 4IR not just on paper, but in reality.

MS: There is a recognised need to ensure that MSMEs are resilient to the looming climate crisis, biodiversity loss and pollution, and are drivers of an inclusive transition towards more sustainable economies. What nationwide measures FICCI FLO is taking and will be taking to ensure a striking balance between 'Profits, People & Planet?'

US: We have always promoted sustainability, environment friendly methods of livelihood creation. Besides embracing technology, FLO believes in utilising the available natural resources for creating resilient MSME’s. In the past, we organised skill development programs like mushroom cultivation, apiculture, pulp making, vermicompost making training etc. FLO has promoted indigenous handloom industry to not only keep alive the traditional weaving methods, but also because they have less carbon footprints. Through FLO’s adopt the village programs, we have undertaken tree plantation drives, cleaning, and maintenance of water bodies.

MS: Resurrecting World Trading System: An Indian Perspective – What’s your take on this and FLO plans towards the resurrection of the Indian economy?

US: India has a trade deficit. The number of women in trading globally and in India are few. The barriers in trade for women entrepreneurs are almost the same - Limited access to funding, challenges of meeting regulations, standards & certifications; lack of foreign market intelligence and advantage of international business networks; language & cultural barriers; logistics and distribution channels. There is a large presence of women owned companies in sectors with lower barriers of entry and lower connections to global value chains.

We will work towards creating policies that will enhance women participation in trade. The struggle to ensure legislative and administrative reforms to guarantee women’s right to ownership and control over resources will continue. The government already mandates 2 percent of purchase from women entrepreneurs in public procurement, which can definitely be boosted to 10 percent. A mandatory requirement of necessary disbursement of loans by financing institutions can definitely go a long way in promoting women in trading.

MS: Burgeoning population as per census of India and a much-needed population control bill. What’s your take on this with respect to the physical, mental, and socio-economic condition of the masses?

US: The projected population of India by 2050 is 1.69 billion, higher than that of China. The Population Control bill 2020 proposes to introduce a two-child policy per couple and aims to incentivize its adoption through various measures such as educational benefits, taxation cuts, home loans, free healthcare, and better employment opportunities. The population control bill is expected to have a positive impact on the society at large, like for example,

  • Minimum age of Marriage can be increased
  • Raising the Status of Women as they can now study and also pursue economic independence, this will lead to not only spread of education but also better standing in society and family.
  • Adoption of children orphaned during pandemic has become a concern, if adoption of such children or the ones abandoned will solve many social issues.

MS: How do you think the nation can achieve the target of 'Bridging the Information Gap and Democratising Access to Information' at a faster and steady pace? And what would be the policy changes required in this regard?

US: The production and manufacturing of digital infrastructure would boost the IT Sector; the 2020 report by the India Cellular and Electronics Association and Ernst and Young stated that India could generate a manufacturing value of 100 billion dollars if it starts producing laptops and tablets. Further, it would create 5 lakh jobs, add 1,25% to the gross domestic product (GDP), facilitate the inflow of foreign exchange to 75 billion dollars and investment over 1 billion dollars.

India has almost 600 million, internet users comprising more than 12% of all users globally. Yet half its population lacks internet access. The situation got acute as almost 80% of Indian students couldn’t access online schooling during the lockdown, and many might not return to classrooms when they reopen, according to a recent study by Oxfam. While the divide isn’t unique to India, it’s especially acute in a nation where more than half the population of 1.3 billion people is under 25 years old as per Indian Govt data.

That's just one example of how the pandemic has impaired the country's digital divide - the gap between those with the means and knowledge to benefit from the internet, and those without - worsening already stark levels of inequality and weighing on economic growth. Despite the incredible growth of the Internet since the early 1990's, India still lacks a robust telecommunication infrastructure with sufficient reliable bandwidth for Internet connection.

The Digital India project was launched in 2015, with three pillars related to digital infrastructure, digital services, and digital empowerment. The Aadhar project, e-panchayats and the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana were the key building blocks of this approach. We do not lack in policy, the delay is in the implementation of the same.

MS: Artificial Intelligence, Digitisation, upgrading technology, innovation and integrating the same at workplaces that FLO is supporting pan India. How do you plan to upskill the workforce and achieve this humongous task in a smooth and consistent manner?

US: FLO has always worked in tandem with advances in technology and ensuring this knowledge is inculcated in the workplaces of organisations we are associated with. With the national skilling and startup initiatives, not only have we signed multiple MoUs with premier national and international organisations to tap these futuristic trends and technologies, we have a well structured framework to implement these pan India. We mentor and incubate companies across sectors and bring both external and internal tech enablement programs to these companies as applicable.

MS: New startups and a fast-changing global economic scenario. How does FICCI FLO plan to move ahead in educating these start-up leaders towards a better understanding of international economic law, intellectual property rights, public interest in the advent of intellectual property rights and more related facets of economic intelligence towards the start-ups' better global collaborations?

US: As the Indian startup ecosystem gets more innovation driven with greater emphasis on knowledge, creativity and technology, we at FICCI FLO understand the importance of training our entrepreneurs in matters of intellectual property rights and international economic law. At our FLO Virtual Incubator, we periodically invite speakers and hold workshops which help founders understand the nuances of IP and other related issues.

MS: Cryptocurrency, its scope and educating the home manager as well as the business manager towards the same, to financially empower them as a parallel plan B.
What is your overall opinion on this? And in the next five years, what steps should the state-central government, as well as the education sector of India, take to match the global progress in this arena?

US: Honestly, this is not an easy question. Currently, crypto currency is not a valid currency in the conventional sense in India since it is unregulated. As an investment class, cryptocurrencies do not fall under the ambit of any regulator like SEBI and are considered volatile, more so due to their decentralised and highly speculative nature. We are keenly observing the Government's moves on this subject and any legislative proposals regarding cryptocurrencies and their trading.

MS:. Worldwide about 44% of women head businesses, while in India we barely meet the target of 20%, that too running parallel with consistent fallouts of women workforce. Also, there is gender parity especially in the pay scale for the same work and designation plus mismanagement in POSH law enforcement at many places. What overall measures will be needed on an immediate and consistent basis to help India achieve a balanced workforce and leadership?

US: Today in India women are closing the higher education gap. Among graduates in the year 2018-19, 53% of undergraduate degrees were represented by women. However, when it comes to workforce participation, women account for only 19.9% of the total labor force. Women are highly underrepresented in leadership positions as well. With only 3.7% of CEOs and MDs of NSE listed companies being women, this presents a very grim situation. There are a number of measures which can be taken to change this.

  • Today we speak to women only about education, and very rarely are conversations centred around their careers.
  • Career focused relevant education, training and skill development programs should be introduced in colleges.
  • Reskilling programs for older women, who have taken a break post marriage/child birth needs to be made more accessible and acceptable.
  • Access to childcare and maternity protection laws need to be strengthened.

By setting the right tone at the top, an organisation can open several doors for women, enabling them to work side-by-side with men. In the process the organisation will not only break that ever elusive glass ceiling but will in turn have access to a wider talent pool. This requires choosing the right policies and ensuring their effective implementation without discrimination against any gender.

Equal opportunities will only boost profitability and enhance organisational reputations. As things stand today in India, gender inequality remains a problem across all professions. However, the first step toward finding a solution to any problem is the acknowledgment of its existence, which is what organisations will accomplish when they implement the Gender Parity Index. One cannot ignore or aim to achieve economic growth without the inclusion of 50% of its population.

MS: Geopolitical & Economic Impact of COVID-19: Emerging Challenges & Opportunities and Way Forward for India. What's your SWOT analysis? And how is FICCI FLO already empowering/ aims to empower the female members of any family, especially the COVID19 widows and orphans young girls?

US: FLO Covid Impact Report based on survey of around 2500 women highlights certain measures that government, corporates as well as organisations like FLO can take forward especially in the following areas:

  1. There is a gender gap in terms of ownership in MSMEs. According to the survey, only 27% of MSMEs were female owned.
  2. Lots of women work in economic units without registering under MSME due to lack of awareness about the registration process and miss out on availing social benefits and accessing institutional credit line
  3. Engagement of women in low level skill jobs and hence the requirement for upskilling
  4. Improve Financial Literacy and Technological Skills of Women
  5. Improve financial literacy to increase penetration of institutional credit

As an initiative to help women working in the traditional textile and handicrafts industry, FLO started a drive to buy from the artisans’ directly. We partnered with ‘Creative Dignity’ a group of men and women artists and marketing experts, who were helping artisans on-board and sell online. FLO through its chapters mobilised hundreds of artisans (women and men both) to sell online.

FLO also created training modules with private and government players like GeM to onboard women entrepreneurs. These mentoring and training included all eligible. There was no specific focus towards widows or orphaned girls.

MS: Do you think that sports should be given an implemental status of the industry so that entrepreneurs can invest in sports infrastructure, sports teams and sports persons? What would be FLO's suggestions on it to the Govt of India?

US: Sports in India was given industry status in the year 2020. FICCI was instrumental in the same. The industry is estimated to be at INR 5894 Cr. The accordance of industrial status to sports will help expand sports infrastructure at the rural level as well. With this, government, private and corporate firms would be interested in supporting sports. This in turn will help secure the livelihood of many people in the state. ‘KHELO India" is a very comprehensive plan of the government of India to encourage sports and create equal opportunities.

FLO supports the initiatives of the government to improve infrastructure, training, and opportunities for all. India as a country has an appetite for sports. Women athletes will go a long way in changing the social taboos and barriers created for women.

About Ms Ujjwala Singhania

Ujjwala Singhania is the 38th National President of the FICCI Ladies Organisation (FICCI FLO). Before that, she initiated the FLO Women Directors initiative in 2015. Ujjwala informs that she realized that there was a need to bring about gender parity into the boards of corporate companies. She took up this challenge and conducted training programs for women. Ujjwala Singhania is also the Director at J K International as well as the Director at General Data Private Limited, a company specializing in software development and engineering analysis. Passionate about education, she was instrumental in introducing the global International Baccalaureate curriculum in the Smt. Sulochanadevi Singhania School in Mumbai. Besides, she has forayed into vocational training for underprivileged children at the Raymond Rehabilitation Centre and for tribal women in their centre in Chhindwara.

About the Interviewer

Mahima Sharma is an Independent Journalist based in Delhi NCR. She has been in the field of TV, Print & Online Journalism since 2005 and previously an additional three years in allied media. In her span of work she has been associated with CNN-News18, ANI - Asian News International (A collaboration with Reuters), Voice of India, Hindustan Times and various other top media brands of their times. In recent times, she has diversified her work as a Digital Media Marketing Consultant & Content Strategist as well. Mahima can be reached at media@indiastat.com

Disclaimer : The opinions expressed within this interview are the personal opinions of the interviewee. The facts and opinions appearing in the answers do not reflect the views of Indiastat or the interviewer. Indiastat does not hold any responsibility or liability for the same.

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