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India reaps benefits of economic boom

By Carlyle Laurie for CNN
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(CNN) -- If the world needed a wake-up call to India's growing economic might then last week's acquisition of the Anglo-Dutch steel firm Corus by Tata Steel ought to have done the job.

The audacious $7.6 billion deal was the largest-ever foreign takeover by an Indian company and propelled Tata, overnight, from being the world's 56th largest steel manufacturer to the fifth.

Hailing the deal as a "strategically compelling combination," Tata chairman Ratan Tata said it marked a "defining moment" in his company's history. But the deal was also symbolic of India's wider business boom.

With economic growth surging past eight percent and amid the growing international reputation of traditional business dynasties such as the Tata, Birla, Mahindra and Mittal families, some analysts have speculated that the 21st century could belong to India -- just as the past 100 years were hailed as the "American century."

One man to have already capitalized on India's new status as a rising economic superpower is London-based tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, one of the world's richest men with an estimated fortune of more than $27 billion.

In June this year, the Mittal Steel Company, which began life as a small family-run company in the north of India, successfully took over Luxembourg-based rival Arcelor to create the world's biggest steel manufacturer. Although, Mittal now has headquarters in the Netherlands, 80 percent of the company is still family-owned.

With newspapers abuzz with headlines about the country's upturn in economic fortunes, the Economic Times captured the national mood following the Mittal deal by saying, "For India, it is a harbinger of things to come -- economic superstardom."

Yet question marks remain over whether India's economic boom can last, or whether it is simply a thin sheen of prosperity in a country still stricken by extremes of poverty and wealth.

While software engineers in Hyderabad and Mumbai bankers live in luxury, almost a third of the population -- around 380 million people -- survive on less than $1 a day -- and 78 percent on less than $2.

Despite the trappings of Westernization in major cities, a literacy rate of just 61 percent and high infant mortality rates betray the reality of India's status as an emerging nation.

Though overall poverty levels are falling at the rate of around one percent per year, that figure is hardly keeping pace with the high levels of economic growth reported in the business pages of India's newspapers.

Nonetheless, Mervyn Davies, the CEO of banking and finance firm Standard Chartered told the Financial Times newspaper that recent oversees acquisition by Indian were only the "tip of the iceberg."

"Over the next 10 to 20 years, a big phenomenon in the world will be Chinese and Indian companies, once they have scale in their own markets, expanding oversees," he said.

There are signs that is happening already with Indian companies making more than 130 acquisitions exceeding $18 billion in value this year.

The money for these acquisitions has come substantially from global financiers, a key indicator that business experts and analysts now see India as a country meriting serious levels of investment.

"No longer do Indian companies cower behind protectionist walls," wrote Indian columnist Swaminathans Anklesaria Aiyar following the Mittal deal.

"Indeed, they are now taking over foreign giants. They have the confidence of global financiers, who now rate Reliance Industries and Tata Steel as more creditworthy than Ford or General Motors."

Such a comparison would have been inconceivable just a decade ago, but today it is a reality --- prompting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to set ever higher economic growth targets.

"We should be targeting 10 percent growth in two-three years," Singh said in November last year, claiming the country was on the verge of take-off. "If the private sector seizes the initiative, the sky is the limit."

Yet more recently others have sounded a more cautious note. On Tuesday Dr. Yaga Venugopal Reddy, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, set the alarm bells ringing when he warned that present rates of development risked overheating the economy.

"We must avoid the danger of running faster than we can. At the moment there is no issue. We are only sounding an alert on the possibility of overheating," he said.

Whether that proves to be the case, or whether India continues to surge forward remains to be seen -- but either way the world's financial markets are likely to be watching.


Steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal (left), one of the world's richest men, meets Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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