When Jack Welch, former chief of General Electric, the world's second largest company, said a few years ago that "India is a developed country as far as intellectual capital is concerned", it was time to sit up and take notice.
Welch made his remarks at the beginning of the new millennium when he was still at the helm of General Electric. Seven years down the line, India has overshot expectations to clock several consecutive years of high-speed growth.
Now, as India enters its 62nd year of independence, the country is well on the path to leveraging this intellectual capital and transforming itself into a global knowledge economy powerhouse - having already clocked $1 trillion in gross domestic product (GDP) during 2006-07.
"I am happy to say India has experienced vigorous growth at an average of 8.8 percent per year for the past four years," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the 15th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) - the eight-nation South Asian regional forum - in Colombo earlier this month.
India is also well on its way to fulfilling the projections made by the world's top investment bank Goldman Sachs that it will emerge as the third largest economy in two decades and the world's second largest economy by 2050, behind China but exceeding the US.
Even the otherwise conservative head of India's central bank, Reserve Bank of India Governor Y.V. Reddy, while moderating India's economic growth projection for the current fiscal, said the pace of growth would remain fast by any global standard.
"We continue to remain the second-fastest growing economy in the world," Reddy said, while reviewing the performance of the Indian economy and the central bank's monetary policy earlier this month.
Over the past 17 years, since India embarked on the path of economic reforms, there have been six governments and five prime ministers, but the economy has moved in just direction - a sustained eight-percent-plus economic growth.
"I am happy that in these past 17 years, despite the many changes in government with different political parties wielding power in New Delhi and in the states, there has been no reversal of the processes of economic reform and liberalization," the prime minister said.
There are other facets of India as well that speak volumes about its resurgence as a growing and emerging economy between 1990 and now.
- GDP grew from Rs.5,150 billion to Rs.42,830 billion ($1.7 trillion)
- GDP growth expanded from 4.9 percent to 9.1 percent.
- Per capita income almost doubled from $390 to $740.
- Foreign exchange reserves jumped from barely $1 billion to $310 billion.
- Inflows from foreign funds rose from $1 million to over $60 billion.
- Foreign direct investment shot up from $97 million to $25 billion.
- Exports jumped from $18.1 billion to $155 billion.
- Software and services exports rose from $50 million to $40 billion.
- Mobile phone subscribers base grew from one million to 286 million.
- Food grain output rose from 176 million tonnes to a record 230 million tonnes.
Among the key factors driving this growth is its human capital where India is estimated to have the fourth largest reservoir of scientific talent pool. This has enabled the creation of a formidable knowledge economy.
"Today, the world looks at India - and the enterprising people of India - with respect and admiration," the Cambridge- and Oxford-educated economist-prime minister said recently.
"By creating an environment in which the creativity and genius of the Indian people has been able to find freer expression, we have strengthened India's global standing," added Manmohan Singh, considered the architect of the country's reforms programme.
As a result, the country has logged a phenomenal 33.7 percent average annual growth in its knowledge-intensive software and services industry over the last few years, taking its revenues from a mere $12.4 billion in 2002-03 to $52 billion in 2007-08.
Similarly, in knowledge process outsourcing, India is growing at around 25-27 percent and gross revenues are expected to shoot up to over $10 billion by 2012 from the current $4 billion, according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham), a leading industry lobby.
Even in telecommunications - where the country's tele-density was abysmally low even five years ago - some 8-10 million subscribers are being added to the network every month. India has also overtaken the United States, with as many as 286 million subscribers, and ranks just below China.
"If the last few years of telecom were exciting in India, it will be even more exciting in the coming years," said Nripendra Misra, chairperson of the industry's watchdog, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.
"In terms of numbers, we would easily achieve the target of 500 million by 2010."
In other knowledge-intensive industries, especially pharmaceuticals and biotech, Indian companies such as Ranbaxy Laboratories, Dr. Reddy's Laboratories and Biocon are steadily climbing the global corporate pecking order to emerge among the top 5-10 global players.
To leverage the potential, the prime minister also announced three years ago the formation of the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) under noted technocrat Sam Pitroda - the man responsible for ushering in the telecom revolution in India in the eighties.
The broad goal of the commission was to recommend ways to convert India's demographic advantage of having the world's largest set of young people - estimated at over 300 million - into knowledge capital by following a knowledge-oriented development path.
"The time has come to create a second wave of institution-building and of excellence in the field of education, research and capability building so that we are better prepared for the 21st century," Manmohan Singh said.
The commission's recommendations have resulted in the government attaching top priority to education, reflected by a five-fold increase in budgetary allocation. At Rs.2,700 billion ($67.5 billion), the allocation for education constitutes 20 percent of India's planned allocation for the next five years.
"Indian policy makers are already starting to implement some of the key actions that are necessary to bolster India's effective transformation to the knowledge economy," the World Bank said, looking at the policy decisions taken in recent years.
The fund bank also said that the notion of a knowledge economy was neither new nor foreign to India. The country's past achievements in science, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy reinforce the notion that the country has for millennia been a leading "knowledge society".
In fact, India was the world's largest economy in the first millennium and also at the beginning of the industrial revolution around 1,700 A.D. But subsequently, its share in the world economy headed south, being a latecomer to the industrial revolution.
Now, three centuries down the line, India is again poised to become the second largest, if not the largest, economy in the world as it increasingly assumes leadership of the current knowledge revolution.
As Manmohan Singh told industry leaders recently: "I am confident that the Indian economy will continue to grow at 8-9 percent rates of growth and India will emerge as one of the growth engines for the world economy as a whole."