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On a detour from trip to D.C., India’s finance minister meets with Boston execs

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 6 days ago Jon Chesto
Nirmala Sitharaman Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg © T. Narayan Nirmala Sitharaman Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg

In her first trip outside her home country since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Nirmala Sitharaman, the Finance Minister of India, came to the US this week for meetings in Washington of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

But first, Sitharaman swung through Boston.

She spent much of the past two days at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, holding forth with various local corporate leaders about how her government is stepping up its efforts to attract foreign investment. There, she met separately with top executives of American Tower Corp., Bain Capital, ExxonMobil, PerkinElmer, Advent International, Thermo Fisher Scientific, and State Street Global Advisors. She also spoke to members of the US-India Business Council.

“Some of them are already present in India and they want to expand, like American Tower [and] Bain,” Sitharaman said. “All of them were so absolutely informed and clued into what is happening in India. ... For many sectors, the policies that we have made in the last two years ... have encouraged a lot of investors to come in.”

Sitharaman had two meetings lined up at Harvard University as well. On Monday, she had dinner with faculty from the Harvard business and medical schools, an event arranged by Larry Summers, the former Treasury Secretary (and former Harvard president). Then on Tuesday, she spoke to faculty and students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. From here she was scheduled to head to Washington to join the annual World Bank and IMF meetings on Wednesday, along with a meeting of the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors.

The finance minister’s visit to Boston reflects how eager India government officials are to build business ties here, particularly in the region’s life science industry. Sitharaman said she also wanted to come because of the large number of people with Indian ancestry who live here, and the thousands of students from India attending the area’s colleges and universities.

She sees parallels between the Boston area and India, particularly with regard to how the life sciences sector was cultivated in both places.

“In India today, over the last two decades, there has been a rampant development of the biopharma industry,” Sitharaman said. “The government has invested in the biopharma industry in a big way [through grants and other subsidies].”

Sitharaman invited people to visit India to see the economic rebirth firsthand. In particular, she wants to show off a global financial hub under development in the central business district in Gandhinagar, in the state of Gujarat. Leaders there are trying to position the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, as it is known, as an alternative to Singapore for global corporations eager to expand in southern Asia.

India’s economy, as measured by gross domestic product, is expected to grow by more than 9 percent this year, even when factoring in the COVID-19 surge that shook the country this spring.

Bain Capital first established its presence in Mumbai in 2008, and has since invested more than $4 billion in the country. Sitharaman met with John Connaughton, co-managing partner at the Boston private equity firm, and co-chairman Stephen Pagliuca on Monday. Bain executives said they are pleased with the business-friendly reforms undertaken by the current administration, and intrigued about the potential for privatization of government assets such as shipping terminals and airlines. Bain made one investment in an Indian port business earlier this year, and Pagliuca sits on the board of Axis Bank, an Indian company in Bain’s portfolio.

“India represents an opportunity for more investments in the future,” Connaughton said. “The conversation was a reaffirmation of the government’s interest in trying to undertake these reforms. We just want to encourage it.”

Waltham-based diagnostics maker PerkinElmer has been in India for at least three decades, with 2,000-plus employees there today. Chief executive Prahlad Singh, a native of India who moved to the US for graduate school in his early 20s, made the case in his meeting with the finance minister for a government-backed newborn screening effort in that country. PerkinElmer is a global leader on this front, making blood tests that can screen for more than 50 congenital disorders to help determine the specialized healthcare that a baby might need.

“She was very eager to listen and she promised to make the right connections with the health ministry that would play a pivotal role if this were to move forward,” Singh said of Sitharaman. “I’m optimistic that will lead us to build on the relationship we have started to establish.”

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