The ban on gaming app PUBG might not make the Modi Govt popular with kids but it can spur local development
The events of June 15 in the Galwan valley of Ladakh have had some repercussions on the lives of millions of Indians and not just on those bravehearts who were mortally wounded in the battle. That clash changed our bilateral dynamic forever. It taught Indian policy makers that the Xi Jinping-led Chinese administration was not a good faith actor and would continue its territorial imperialism. Its continuous pushiness in Ladakh is proof enough. It spurred India, which had been lackadaisical in the development of infrastructure in border areas, to dramatically ramp up building activity. The embryonic ‘Quad’ alliance between India, Australia, Japan and the US got a growth spurt. It woke us up to the need to gradually withdraw our trade dependencies and shrink Chinese revenue at the expense of our markets. And it also allowed Indian policy makers to realise the level of Chinese influence in the mobile and internet arena in India. The ban on popular application TikTok and several others was just the start. Now the Indian Government has also taken down the popular gaming application, Player Unknown: Battlegrounds, usually called by its acronym PUBG, citing security and data privacy issues. Much can be written about the ban of these applications but as internet-entrepreneur Sanjeev Bikchandani explained on the first episode of The Pioneer Conversations, the national security establishment would have made this decision, taking into account all major factors. Data pilfering is a concern but yes, this is a punitive cyber counter-strike against Beijing, hitting it where it hurts most, namely its growing applications and tech penetration in India. In fact, Beijing implied as much, saying India had imposed the ban in the face of pressure from the US, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying warning against “short-sighted” participation in US restrictions against Chinese technology. India’s strategic shift to the US is becoming more pronounced and with the combined US-India blackout of Chinese tech access, the dragon could be impacted quite a bit.
Several of these applications had a vast majority of their users based in India and thus their valuations were powered by us. However, there are questions on the creators of PUBG, although its beneficial ownership is by Chinese firm Tencent. If the government chooses to target Chinese ownership, that could become a huge problem for several Indian start-ups, including PayTM, which has significant ownership from the Alibaba-controlled Ant Financial. The lack of Chinese money would make it difficult for some Indian start-ups to raise resources although it might make life easier for Indian investors. Thankfully, PUBG has pushed the live game streaming industry in India with a large number of content creators earning good money. Then there is another aspect to the latest ban which impacted several games and not just PUBG. What effect will that have on India’s nascent e-sports craze as well as game creation? We have been a laggard in the latter, and while there were tens of TikTok clones within hours of that app being banned, no Indian company is in any shape or form close to creating a reasonable gaming experience for users. That said, the burgeoning popularity of games in India and worldwide, the only entertainment sphere that has grown exponentially globally during the lockdown, might mean that there could be some good games being created in India in the coming years. This move could, in fact, goad game developers into innovating their products. However, bans work both ways and a ban on Chinese-created or owned games in India might mean that Indian-created games will also find it difficult to expand into new markets going forward.
Hitting a wall in China, the social media giant has played panderer to deepen its market in India
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had once said that opinions aired on social media do not shape people’s choices, their lived experiences under a particular political regime do. Since then, much water has flown under the bridge and social media has not only been used as a propaganda tool but has been weaponised to create a wave of opinion and manipulate public perception. Russia was first accused of data mining, hacking and using details to influence the US election. After that, social media became such a powerful barometer of discourse that willy-nilly it has become a partisan tool. So it comes as no surprise that an article published in The Wall Street Journal on Friday stated how Facebook India “took no action after BJP politicians posted content, accusing Muslims of intentionally spreading the Coronavirus, plotting against the nation and waging a ‘love jihad’ campaign by seeking to marry Hindu women.” The report quoted a former Facebook employee as saying that Facebook India was told not to filter extreme Right-wing messages by BJP leaders as that would be inimical to its business in India. This is a serious allegation as it makes Facebook equally guilty of differential standards when it comes to hate speech and blots its claimed ethics of being an accessible platform for all kinds of issues. Worse, it makes Facebook look like a panderer of the establishment, more interested in holding on to its Indian market with 290 million users and another 400 million on Whatsapp. With China erecting a wall against Western platforms, the corporation looks desperate to consolidate its presence in India. But as usual, this concern, despite a series of denials by the company, got buried in the competitive whataboutery of political parties. As Congress leader Rahul Gandhi claimed vindication, BJP leader and Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad reminded him how the Congress itself had harvested data in alliance with Cambridge Analytica before the Lok Sabha elections. Many Opposition parties, too, had accused Facebook of being the BJP’s de facto campaign manager before the Lok Sabha polls.
The larger question is, therefore, can social media ever again claim to be an open platform of free-flowing speech and ideas, considering it has gotten deeply embedded in all aspects of our life and cannot but be an influencer in itself? Facebook and Twitter are two corporate giants who can wield information as power, with the former having snapped up rivals Instagram and WhatsApp in recent years. With over 2.3 billion monthly users across its networks, it is too much of a behemoth to be democratic. Some estimates say that internet users spend an average of two hours and 22 minutes a day on such platforms, giving political parties the power to harness the numbers and attention span to disseminate their ideologies and even dump them indiscriminately, picking up some stray attention, too, in the process. US President Donald Trump was calculated to have utilised Twitter for an estimated $2.2 billion of free media coverage. Even newer political leaders from the opposite end of the political spectrum have captured popular imagination because of their online presence. For the corporations themselves, they are not non-profit and will, in the end, look out for their revenue graphs than the greater good. And, therefore, are into a lot of self-serving governance protocols in the absence of a public propriety code. In fact, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs and Communications, had commented last year that “we don’t believe … that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny.” The problem with this uninvolved approach is that politicians are emboldened to do whatever it takes to get their viewpoint across, even lies. Because there is no fact-checking, a campaign can go viral — sometimes tidal — before it can be called out. Any rejoinder or retraction then seems rather pointless. Besides who would prevent mainline politicians from lying about their own data, which they quote citing their own statistical sources? No wonder the misinformation has catastrophic consequences though stakeholders benefit in their limited domain. There’s undoubtedly a need for a middle ground than a mutually self-serving club of the information propagator and the disseminator. Also such is their combined monopoly that while Facebook made money from paid political advertisements in the last US elections, Twitter capitalised on the anti-Facebook rant and banned such campaigns, drawing the alternative traffic to itself. Either way, both parties are capitalising on their database, a heaving monster that is beyond anybody’s control, and apportioning it between themselves. And users continue to be a captive audience.
Courtesy: Editorial-The Pioneer
Perovskite-based solar cells are a good alternative to silicon-based PV cells. But the problem of degradation due to weather conditions needs to be addressed
Recently, the Prime Minister inaugurated the country’s largest photovoltaic (PV) cell-based solar energy plant at Rewa in Madhya Pradesh. While inaugurating this 750 megawatt (MW) plant, he stressed upon the need for atmanirbharta (self-reliance). Considering that about 80 per cent of our solar power generation equipment is of Chinese origin, the inauguration of the solar plant was timely. The Prime Minister used the occasion to emphasise this aspect. Said he, “India won’t be able to fully use its solar power potential if the country doesn’t develop better solar panels, batteries and storage manufacturing capacity.” India imported $2.16 billion worth of solar photovoltaic cells, panels and modules in 2018-19.
India is lucky that sunlight is available in abundance here but the challenge lies in the procurement of the PV cells. This has been one of the major constraining factors in our efforts to realise the full potential of solar energy. According to a report submitted by the parliamentary Standing Committee, in order to achieve the target of 100 GW of solar electricity capacity by 2022, India should have had an installed capacity of 32,000 MW by 2017-18. But as of January 31, 2018, the country only had a capacity of 18,455 MW. As per the standing committee, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has to install the remaining 81,545 MW in just four years — this is over 20,000 MW a year and appears difficult to achieve.
However, despite the constraints, the price of solar energy has come down to Rs 2-2.50 per unit from Rs 7-8 per unit in 2014. A serious lacuna in this entire exercise of achieving the solar power target continues to be our poor record of indigenous manufacturing of solar panels and our near-complete dependency on Chinese imports.
Today, China is the only country that caters to most of the global PV cell demands. It produces the cheapest solar panels. It is difficult for any country to match such low prices. This has led to a situation where China has a virtual monopoly and this may not be desirable in the long run. Our own imports, mostly from China, accounted for 90 per cent of 2017 sales, up from 86 per cent in 2014. Thus, it is paradoxical that both our sources of energy, oil as well as solar, are currently heavily dependent on imports.
The Chinese advantage is based on low cost of manufacturing despite the process being highly power consumptive and polluting. In the present scenario, particularly in the wake of the Galwan incident, imports of solar technology from China have been banned as it would not have been logical on our part to continue to nourish their economy.
In the absence of cheap imports, the current situation may, perhaps, appear to be disappointing but there are alternatives which must be fully exploited. First, the solar thermal route for harnessing solar energy has found limited application so far. As of now, there are only six functional solar thermal plants, which amount to just a fraction of our total requirement.
Understandably, this technology has its own advantages but is somewhat more expensive than the PV cell route. This is why it has not gathered much acceptance. More research in this area can ensure that costs are further cut down leading to profitability.
An alternative to silicon-based PV cells, which is the speciality of China, has since been found in the form of Perovskite solar cells. This is also a tried and tested method. According to the work done at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, the efficiency of the Perovskite cells, which was about three per cent in 2006, showed a marked improvement. It has now been determined to be at about 22 per cent, which makes it quite viable.
Perovskite is a crystalline form of the chemical called calcium titanate. It may sound formidable but fortunately, all the raw materials used to manufacture it are indigenously available. The process, too, is much simpler, less polluting and consumes less power than the production of silicon chips.
Perovskite is the product of limestone, which is abundantly available in the country, and titanium oxide, which is obtained from sands containing ilmenite, an ore of titanium. Ilmenite, too, is available in abundance as we have reserves of several million tonnes of this ore in the sands along the shores of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The present usage of titanium oxide is confined to the paints and pigment industry as well as in the manufacture of cosmetics and sunscreens as it offers good protection against UV rays.
The absence of Chinese products from now onwards needs to be considered as an opportunity for accelerated research so as to put this technology to commercial use at the earliest. Perovskite-based solar cells have performed exceedingly well in controlled conditions but the problem of degradation due to weather conditions needs to be addressed. The silicon-based PV cells are almost weather proof, so the durability of Perovskite has to be brought up to that level.
Perovskite technology has the potential of being a game -changer in our quest for harnessing solar energy with less polluting and low cost solutions. The renewable energy firm, ReNew Power Pvt Ltd, has already announced that it is in discussion with various States to set up a Rs 1,500-2,000 crore facility to make solar cells and modules. The need is for close monitoring and allocation of sufficient funds for research. India can’t afford to lose the new solar race.
Writer: KK PAUL; Courtesy: The Pioneer
(The writer is a former Governor and senior advisor at the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation)
Chennai techie finds Pragyan, the rover on-board Chandrayaan-2, intact while assessing NASA images
In some good news for India, which is grappling with the twin woes of an ailing economy and the deepening Coronavirus crisis, a Chennai-based techie has claimed that the rover onboard Chandrayaan-2, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) moon mission, is intact on the lunar surface and had even moved a few metres. India’s second mission to the moon had ended in disaster as a last-minute software glitch led to the Vikram lander crash-landing on the lunar surface, just 500 metres short of touchdown. Yes, we were ambitious to land on the dark side of the moon, which bigger space-faring nations have not attempted, but the rover’s presence is reassurance that while we need to refine our efforts, they have all not gone to waste. And ISRO needs to follow through the Chandrayaan series in mission mode.
Since the failure of the Chandrayaan-2 last year, things have not gone too well for ISRO, with its GISAT-1 launch being mysteriously called off on March 4, a day before take-off citing an ambiguous “technical reason.” Plus, the space agency, which had a very busy schedule for this year — with around two dozen launches, including Aditya, India’s first solar probe — is having trouble keeping its commitments. Due to the pandemic playing spoilsport, ISRO, too, had to go into a lockdown mode. India’s ambitious human space flight programme Gaganyaan, is in trouble because the astronaut training of the four test pilots of the Indian Air Force has been stopped. Besides over 100 manufacturing units in the private sector, that are contracted to manufacture components for ISRO’s missions, are shut and the work of producing rockets, satellites and scientific instrumentation is on hold right now. But what is most encouraging is that the rover was found by a Chennai techie, Shanmuga Subramanian, from NASA’s images. He had earlier helped NASA find the debris of the Vikram lander, earning him plaudits from the space agency and the gratitude of an embarrassed ISRO. His persistence should be a reason for inducting him and others like him in our space-faring projects. Space nerds should be identified from school and encouraged. It was difficult to detect the rover because it was on the South Pole of the Moon, which is not always well-lit and was missed by the NASA flyby on November 11 possibly for this reason. Not just this, it seems that the rover uploaded commands to the lander, which could not relay them back. Is some data stored there? But with the Vikram lander going silent, we will never know. Whether this translates into any gains for ISRO, only time will tell. But for now, there is something to cheer about in the Indian space community.
Courtesy: The Pioneer
Google faces an anti-trust probe in the US on charges of stealing content from honest but smaller entities
A much-anticipated congressional hearing via videoconference put four of the US’ most prominent Big Tech CEOs, whose companies have a combined market value of about $5 trillion, on the mat. Google owner Alphabet Inc’s Sundar Pichai, Facebook Inc’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple Inc’s Tim Cook and Amazon.com Inc’s Jeff Bezos deflected accusations from US lawmakers that they crippled smaller competitors in their greed to capture a bigger market share. Pichai, who is the CEO of both Alphabet and Google, took the worst beating from conservatives on the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee’s anti-trust panel. The search engine has been accused of stealing content. It apparently used reviews from Yelp Inc and threatened to delist it from search results if it objected. A report will take some time coming but the biggest challenge for the sub-committee would be to establish whether Google and other tech firms operate as illegal monopolies in their areas of dominion. While it is not illegal for a company to be the biggest and the best in its field, exclusionary conduct or monopoly power by disadvantaging and harming competitors is not permitted. This is because after establishing a monopoly, companies may squeeze suppliers or impose higher prices on consumers. For instance, Google’s search business stifles rivals by favouring its own services while its subsidiary YouTube pushes content to users. Mostly, answers to common questions can be found in “answer boxes” at the top of a results page. Google gets those facts/news from other websites as a result of which users don’t visit the sites of the original content. This starves other websites of valuable traffic and revenue. Plus, Google has paid Apple billions of dollars to be the default search engine on the Safari web browser on iPhones and iPads. Rival firms will never get a level-playing field if the search engine corners such a significant market share.
Apart from genuine worries about monopoly and ethics of business, this review can be said to be a part of the Trump administration’s bid to bring the big technology firms to heel for what is mostly considered to be their anti-Republican attitude. President Trump has had a number of run-ins with many of them and has even threatened to take action against them with executive orders. In fact, Republican Jim Jordan, who was part of the hearing, accused these firms of being “out to get conservatives.” It is time for US regulators to mull if the existing rules are sufficient to rein in these behemoths given their market power and if the laws should be amended. That again is a long haul.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)
Edge computing will be a game-changer for businesses around the world owing to its capability to derive insights from data in real-time
Edge computing is quickly emerging as the next big thing in technology. From mobile devices and cell towers to refrigerators and industrial control systems, the data being generated at the edge by these platforms has enormous business value. However, what is less clear right now is how best to unlock its potential. At its basic level, edge computing brings computation and data storage closer to the devices where it is being gathered, rather than relying on a central location that can be hundreds of kilometres away. This is done so that data, especially real-time data, does not suffer latency issues that can affect an application’s performance. In addition, companies can save money by having the processing done locally, reducing the amount of data that needs to be processed in a centralised or cloud-based location.
Edge computing was developed due to the exponential growth of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, which connect to the internet for either receiving information from the cloud or delivering data back to the cloud. And many IoT devices generate enormous amounts of data during the course of their operations.
However, in one form or another, edge computing has been around for decades. Industrial control systems, for example, are an early form of edge computing that populated manufacturing floors. Telecommunications networks have deployed content delivery networks since the 1990s. What’s changing now is the type of applications that need low latency and intense levels of data, which require both the amount of computing power that can be employed at the edge and the raw network bandwidth being made available.
As these vectors continue to increase, it becomes more feasible to satisfy the requirements of a much wider array of innovative applications at the edge of the network capable of driving a broad range of innovative business outcomes.
A catalyst for automation: Edge computing platforms have the potential to automate every business process imaginable, using machine and deep learning algorithms deployed at the very edge of the network. According to a report by Forrester Research, the total edge computing market size is expected to grow from $2.8 billion as recorded in 2019 to $9.0 billion by 2024. Instead of waiting for data to be analysed by an application residing in the cloud or the local data centre, algorithms will optimise business processes in real-time, based on events as they occur.
Everything, from connected cars to innovative, augmented and virtual-reality applications, depend on the ability to process and analyse data in real-time at the network edge. Field service technicians, for example, will be able to leverage augmented reality applications to visually compare broken equipment to the actual state it should be in.
Harness the power of edge computing to stay competitive: Business and information technology leaders that fail to recognise the possibilities of edge computing will soon find themselves lagging behind. In some cases, it may be an existing organisation employing edge computing platforms to gain a competitive advantage. When used correctly, edge computing can result in efficiencies, new revenue streams, improved customer experiences and even risk-mitigation.
In India, as many organisations have embarked upon the journey to becoming 100 per cent digital, there will be a need to adopt edge computing to automate business processes in the near future. In fact, every instance of digital business transformation will soon be driven by edge computing platforms capable of processing data in real-time. Gartner estimates that by 2025, a whopping 75 per cent of enterprise-generated data will be created and processed outside the traditional, centralised data centre or cloud.
With many relying on cloud and hyper-converged infrastructure to deal with this data explosion, a shift of computing to the edge can be highly anticipated. While the edge evolves and starts making its place in today’s world, we can expect it to become even more disruptive than the existing cloud environment.
Although edge computing is not a new concept for many around the world, it is still at a very nascent stage in India and is on the path to breaking traditional cloud computing limits. Rather it represents a profound transformation of business processes that will soon eclipse the cloud in terms of strategic importance.
While early goals of edge computing were to address the costs of bandwidth for data travelling long distances because of the growth of IoT-generated data, the rise of real-time applications that need processing at the edge will drive the technology ahead. To conclude, edge computing will be a game-changer for businesses around the world owing to its capability to derive insights from data in real-time. This will help in increasing business efficiency while cutting costs as it will eliminate the need for ample cloud storage for data.
(The writer is President and Managing Director, Dell Technologies, India)
There are alternative vendors but costs would go up. We must encourage equipment manufacture with innovation and now
Yes, the economic realities of China dominating much of our product supply chains, from electronics to drugs, weigh heavy on us. Yes, we are deeply aware of sudden disruptions, litigation and fair trade violations if we take a dramatic step of boycotting China overnight. And while building self-sufficiencies is a long-term and sustained effort, there is no reason why we cannot begin taking atma nirbharata seriously while we can. For the latest Chinese ambush at Ladakh has cost us 20 soldiers and over-tested our patience and strategic responsibility in the region. China continues to eat into our territory as it always has. It won’t settle as long as it doesn’t get what it wants and this presumed supremacy has finally got the Government thinking about reducing our dependencies on it. For the summit diplomacy, which has yielded nothing on the ground except encouraging more hostilities, has been a colossal waste of time that smartly sidestepped contentious border issues and helped China deepen its market access as part of trade deals. So Union Minister for Road Transport and MSMEs Nitin Gadkari has said that no Chinese company will be allowed to participate in any highway or MSME project either directly or indirectly, the latter implying outsourcing consultancies by the bidder company. He even suggested alternative technologies that would help us compete on cost effectiveness and gave the example of PPEs, something which we thought would have to come in bulk from Chinese factories and something which we are exporting now. The shrinkage of trade volume to India won’t impact China much, which can only be upset about being denied entry to a future vibrant market, and it is not that current commitments are not being honoured. It is just that manufacturing our own is a sovereign decision and COVID-19 and the Galwan attack have just been accelerators. Similarly, the Department of Telecommunications cancelled the much anticipated 4G upgradation tender of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) to avoid participation by Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE. Local operators such as Airtel, Vodafone and Jio have been asked to reduce dependence on Chinese companies. Meanwhile, the Indian Railways has already cancelled a Rs 471 crore contract with the Beijing National Railway for a project on the Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor. Of course, the US, too, has been red flagging concerns about Huawei and ZTE being a “national security risk” because of their data mining and surveillance operations while working their telecom grids. It is even exerting pressure on its allies, India now getting top billing, to comply by banning them.
But that’s not the reason why India is going for a drastic decision on telecom. It is choosing sectors where either an alternative supply chain exists or where it is possible to magnify home-grown capacities. Compared to the mobile handset industry, where replacing Chinese supply chain and products is almost impossible, in the telecom equipment market that is very much possible. There are European nations, too, in the business though supplies from here would come at a cost. The size of the telecom equipment market in India is around Rs 12,000 crore and the share of Chinese products is currently around 25 per cent, simply because their prices are attractive to operators. That’s why the 4G network of big players like Airtel and Vodafone have been built by Huawei and ZTE. Huawei alone has aggressively made inroads into nearly 25 per cent of the total telecom equipment market in India. While Bharti Airtel uses up to 30 per cent Chinese telecom equipment, including Huawei, for its networks, Vodafone Idea uses as much as 40 per cent. Reliance Jio is the only operator functioning without a Chinese vendor as its network is fuelled by South Korea’s Samsung. But replacement, be it from South Korea, Taiwan or any other Southeast Asian nation, can only work in the short-term if self sufficiency is our ultimate goal. Remember that despite the “Make in India” launch in 2015, there has been no impetus for localised equipment production. The ban comes at a time when India is seeking to raise $84 billion from a sale of airwaves, particularly for new technology, which would revolutionise connectivity. So we need to immediately ramp up existing electronic manufacturing facilities and divert them towards 5G equipment manufacturing if we are to exclude Chinese firms from 5G trials. Indian innovation has always risen to the top during crisis and we could leverage our home-grown talent to re-engineer receivers and emitters in discarded mobile devices to make 5G equipment in a cost-effective manner. We should be as enthusiastic about announcing innovations and encouraging R&D than just announcing a ban that spooks markets.
The People’s Republic of China has proven itself to not act in good faith. This hitback was coming ever since June 15
The news that India has banned 59 Chinese-made apps did not really come as a huge surprise to many ever since the unfolding of events on June 15. Highly popular applications such as TikTok, Shareit and WeChat have been banned. Some of these apps count India among their biggest markets. For example, India is the biggest driver of the TikTok app and the ban is expected to hit its owner Bytedance hard as it had plans to invest $1 billion here. So, it would be prudent for the Government to make a watertight data security and privacy case for banning these apps, much of which have been surreptitiously used for data mining and surveillance. As it is China is countering the ban as a violation of WTO and fair trade rules. Which is why India should be thorough in making a case for national security. This wouldn’t be too difficult for some apps such as TikTok. It is unfortunate though that several Indian youth, particularly from the subaltern classes, are shedding crocodile tears. That said, two and a half decades of the rise of the internet has taught us that platforms like these come and go. So, these “creators” will clearly find something new. Already similar Indian apps like ShareChat are registering higher traffic. Of course, the banning of social platforms is a very small step to counter the Chinese aggression. Nevertheless, the step has been met with widespread approval, even by some of those who have been directly impacted.
The fact is that over the past few years, China has proven that it is not a “good faith” actor. It has been in its interest that until now India remained weak, both economically and militarily. The fact that Indian soldiers stood up to colleagues despite having lost 20 of our men gave the Chinese a dose of their own medicine. That our soldiers were able to kill many Chinese personnel is telling. Banning apps is one thing and acting against Chinese consumer products will possibly be next in the line. But extricating Indian industry from the Chinese supply chain is next to impossible. Industries in our country are heavily dependent on Chinese-made capital goods such as power-generating turbines and industrial machinery as well as China-made intermediates such as active pharmaceutical ingredients. Various sectors would collapse in the absence of Chinese products. We have only ourselves to blame for being in this situation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should harbour some of the blame. His perceived bonhomie with Chinese President Xi Jinping was just an act for the latter. And Xi took Modi for a ride. At the same time, the entire philosophy of selling cheap products and the lowest bidder concept has led to India actively importing from China instead of building up additional capacity or even consider an alternative. Here, the Kolkata and Nagpur metro rail systems are guilty of getting new rolling stock from Dalian instead of encouraging local production lines. India must make it clear that it will not allow Chinese companies to bid for infrastructure projects. Most Chinese companies are beholden to the Chinese Communist Party and, thus, to Xi. We cannot trust the Chinese or their companies. The Ladakh standoff will continue for some time but we have to make it clear to China that India can stand on its own feet. We must reject the Chinese temptation of cheap products and consumer goods. Enough is enough. What is needed is a firm will of the Government to build our own self-sufficiencies and end this dependence.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)
If work from home is to become a sustainable strategy, there is a need to understand and plan for the effects of this on the whole urban ecosystem
Historically, high urbanisation has been one of the major drivers of economic growth. As cities grow and offer new opportunities, they become attractive to the rural population. In turn, this inflow of workers helps sustain urban economic growth. However, the COVID-19 has brought cities to a standstill and one of the crisis’ most visible effects — the shift from an office-based system to work from home (WFH) arrangements — is likely to have spillover effects on many sectors of the urban economy. With many firms planning long-term strategies for WFH and reducing office space, remote working is here to stay. For example, Infosys recently announced permanent WFH for 33 per cent of its employees.
Though adapting to this new normal may be initially difficult, white-collar workers stand to benefit from low travel costs and the stress associated with travelling in a congested and polluted environment.
However, the effect of this shift to a WFH culture on informal workers, who largely depend on formal sector demand, has not received much attention. In India, 80 to 90 per cent of the workers are employed in the informal or semi-informal sector. For many who work in the cities, livelihoods are heavily dependent on demand from an office-based working system. So, it is clear that workers who are going to be badly hit include cycle rickshaw pullers, autorickshaw and taxi drivers, and street vendors who sell food and other commodities outside offices and Metro stations. Additionally, with the lower in-person presence of professionals in the workplace, offices will also require fewer personnel for housekeeping and administrative services. Thus, remote working has created long-term uncertainty for the informal workers.
More than 10 million street vendors in India are likely to be impacted. A common sight in most cities used to be vendors selling a wide cornucopia of products outside Metro stations and large office spaces. A significant share of this workforce also relied on street-food vendors for their meals. However, the fear of COVID-19 exposure and normalisation of WFH has led many people to switch to the more contactless online ordering and the livelihoods of street vendors are now in question. Many have already chosen to go back to their villages or are at the mercy of donations and Government aid to make ends meet.
In order to provide relief to these vendors, the Government recently announced its scheme for the provision of loans. However, many vendors have not been able to avail of this benefit due to the requirements of the associated paperwork and registration process. Additionally, many vendors are not willing to take the loan scheme as it will only put an extra burden of repayment on them in a no-business scenario. Hence, apart from additional reforms to safeguard the livelihoods of street vendors, there is a need to build back consumer confidence to shop from vendors. If demand continues to stay low, the State Governments will need to rethink how alternate livelihoods and support programmes could be provided for these vendors.
The earnings of taxi, autorickshaw drivers and other informal mobility service providers have also taken a hit, even after easing up of lockdowns. The revenues of Ola and Uber driver partners have fallen significantly, and about 2,000 drivers have been removed by these platforms till date. Those still in business are struggling to stay afloat; many claim that their earnings are down by up to 80 per cent.
This situation is likely to persist, as a large volume of demand for these services came from work trips. Much before the lockdowns, cab driver earnings had already fallen due to changes in incentive schemes. Whereas a driver could earn over Rs 50,000 in the initial years of cab aggregation, their earnings have fallen to around Rs 20,000 in recent years. Most are struggling to afford basics and pay rent, and the situation is even worse for those who had purchased vehicles on EMIs.
The informal mobility services providers such as rickshaw, autorickshaw and Grameen Sewa drivers are also struggling due to lack of demand. Social distancing measures have necessitated business at reduced capacity, making the trips unaffordable for shared mobility services like Grameen Sewa and shared autos. These services were also used heavily as a last and first-mile option, and this demand is also likely to remain low with Metro services shut and public transport limited. Some State Governments had provided monetary help to all these operators when the lockdown had begun. But this could not be availed by many due to lack of paperwork. Now with the lack of demand likely to sustain due to WFH being mainstreamed and reduced leisure trips, these workers are still in need of major assistance. Since a large percentage of them also own vehicles, shifting to alternate livelihoods will also be difficult.
If remote working is to become a sustainable strategy, there is a need to understand and plan for the effects of this on the whole urban ecosystem. While WFH may benefit companies and foster some environmental benefits, it will also negatively affect other parts of the system. The most affected are from lower-income groups and those not covered by most Government safety nets. There is also likely to be very little scope to shift to alternate livelihoods with the expected economic contraction. Many people had already invested in physical capital which will now no longer be able to generate the expected income, leaving them burdened with unpayable debts. In addition to providing further loans, the Government must consider how to provide immediate relief to these sections of society. Immediate relief can be provided in terms of waiving penalties and permits such as challans for transport service providers. Many vendors also face undue evictions and are forced to bribe officials; theft of property or goods is another threat that their community faces. Hence, the regulatory systems need to be strengthened to safeguard vendors from such incidents.
The Centre needs to expand the unemployment claims programme to include the informal sector workers. They should be able to avail benefits for a certain number of days in a year, in case their businesses become unsustainable. If we can’t provide sustainable livelihoods to them, then the actual cost of the pandemic will be much higher.
(Writer: Promit Mookherjee | Aakansha jain; Courtesy: The Pioneer)
Unlike a brick-and-mortar business, the beauty of an online business is its instant reach to a huge target audience, not only locally but across borders. But you need to carve a niche first
Covid-19 has changed the world as we know it. We all have to get used to the new normal, both in our personal and professional lives. Businesses have to reinvent and re-engineer themselves to face the challenges thrown up by the Novel Coronavirus. This is especially true of entrepreneurs who are the fountainheads of innovation and creativity. Now more than ever, entrepreneurs need to think out-of-the box to survive these unprecedented times. And the first step towards this is to take advantage of the technological advancements mankind has made and go online. Gone are the days when there was a raging debate on the pros and cons of online business versus an offline one. The question now is how to convert an offline brick-and-mortar business into a click-and-mortar one.
Setting up an online business is by no means an easy task as cyberspace is a different sphere altogether. It requires careful planning, which is the same for any regular offline business. It needs vision, access to funds, hard work and plain old grit and determination. However, unlike a brick-and-mortar business, the beauty of an online business is its instant reach to a huge target audience, not only locally but across borders. But to set up a successful online business, you need to carve out a niche. For example, Amazon created a niche for itself by offering the largest collection of book titles (over one million), which was more than 10 times the range of books in the largest physical bookstores around the world. So, the first step is to develop a clear understanding of the niche you want to address as a business.
Next, try and identify your unique selling proposition (USP). Your business idea may not be totally unique but a support environment can make it exclusive. A great website, a good sales pitch, innovative marketing strategies, smooth supply chains and a responsive customer care can do wonders for a business and help a start-up carve a niche to take on well-established, deep-pocketed competitors. However, don’t become disheartened if you are unable to put a finger on your USPs, they will become obvious at the planning stage. Entrepreneurs have the habit of trying to do all things on their own. Don’t succumb to this habit. Delegation is as important as careful planning. Take the help of experts wherever required in planning, development and deployment of your online business. A successful business person can make a distinction on where and when to use external or expert resources and when to do things on their own. Developing a website, systems administration, database development among others can be such areas where external expertise is required. Employing a third party to manage and maintain your website is a good business decision, which will allow time for focussing on your other USPs. You can surely run a successful online business even if you have no inkling of technology. Outsourcing your technical requirements will cost you but having a good website is like having a great start for your online business.
Just like any business, careful planning and adequate funds can make an online business successful. There are two reasons why a meticulous business plan is necessary. One is to make your proposal attract funding and the second is to create an internal blueprint to plan, launch and execute your venture. Basically, you should develop a business plan for yourself. There are no rights and wrongs in developing a business plan and there are several online templates available to guide you. However, a well-written business plan should answer the following five questions: What are your business’ aims and goals? Why would your business satisfy or fulfil customer needs? Where will you be present? Who are your potential customers and your target audience? And how are you going to launch and continue the daily operations of your business? These five questions will cover all aspects of the venture.
Any business plan is not complete without market intelligence. Competition is a part of life and somewhere, someone would be having a similar product or service that you are planning to offer. So a competitor analysis is an absolute necessity, in terms of the products/services offered, USPs, website layout, quality of information to customers, delivery times, packaging, customer care, complaint handling and so on. Addressing any drawbacks your competitor has will make you popular and increase your consumer base.
Start-up funding and investments are an important requirement for any business. It would be prudent to combine some of the financing options available like your personal savings, loan from family and friends, bank loans, Government grants, angel investing and venture capital. Projecting your income and expense is not one of the easiest tasks. We project our income and expenses based on assumptions which tend to change. Be ready to adapt to changing income and expense figures. Once you have developed a careful plan, you are ready to execute it by establishing the online avatar.
To create a successful website, you should be clear about what you want. Make a list of all your requirements. How many pages do you need? How many products or services do you want to list? Do you want a website that changes frequently? What is the type of user interface needed? Discuss these aspects with your carefully-chosen website developer, who is your partner in one of the most important aspects of online business. You could consider previous experience, technical knowledge, client portfolio, references from clients, commitment and workload as some of the attributes of choosing a good web development partner. If you are planning to capture customer data or receive payments online, you should take responsibility and accountability to protect the information of your customers by pursuing necessary and vital checks and balances.
Once this is done, shop around to have the best payment gateway for your business. Managing content is one of the crucial aspects of online business. Writing quality content takes longer than it sounds and would make the first impression on your customers. The ordering process and experience for the customers has to be hassle-free, so make sure that the order pipeline is easy to navigate and customers do not leave your website without spending. What use is creating a wonderful website, planning and launching the products or services, if it is not monetised?
Apart from the primary source of revenue, secondary sources like advertising become important as you can take advantage of the traffic you receive on your website. Running a successful online venture requires strong backend operations and a robust supply chain mechanism. A reliable supplier network is one of the most important areas that any business should develop. Choosing a good supplier and managing good relations with them are the key to a successful online business.
The next step is to make customers aware of your online business. Search Engine Optimisation is one of the ways with which you can achieve this. The key is to make your website visible to any Search Engine by adding unique content that would be picked up by the bots. For example, Google uses a software called Googlebot to examine the internet for useful content on websites and accordingly ranks them based on that. Good quality content is very attractive to any Search Engine which can hope to satisfy the query of customers. Connecting with your customers through various ways like forums, social media platforms, emails, surveys or through telephone will help build your reputation. Also, be sure to deliver on the claims and promises you make on the website to gain their confidence. Try and go over and above customer expectation and aim for customer delight. Remember under-promise and over-deliver.
So the big question is whether this is the right time to launch your online venture? Marred with the uncertainties unleashed upon the world by the pandemic, setting up a business, particularly an online venture, can be very disheartening.
However, one should know that setting up a business in a depressed economy has its benefits. You can negotiate good terms with your vendors; hire knowledgeable staff of other companies who have been laid off, buy some companies at lower valuations and get your business off the ground. Identify the silver lining in the dark cloud, set up a strong online presence, back it up with a robust operational plan, deliver what you promised, listen to your customers and run a successful online business.
(Writer: Hima Bindu Kota; Courtesy: The Pioneer)
When one tech billionaire wants another’s company to be broken, should authorities listen?
Elon Musk is a provocateur, not a particularly good undercover one but a sampling of his Twitter feed makes for some very interesting reading if nothing else, second only to US President Donald Trump. One of his latest missives on the social media network was his demand to break up Amazon, the e-commerce and web-hosting giant founded by Jeffery Bezos. Should this be taken seriously? Is Amazon too powerful, not just in the e-commerce space but also through its web services? The huge money-spinning web-hosting behemoth that it has become today, it runs almost half the internet. This is indeed a question that competition authorities across the world should seriously ponder about. Amazon is a giant which has outsized shares of e-commerce and web-hosting providers. Its sheer size and scale makes it impossible for newer, smaller players to enter this space. In countries like India, it may be challenged by the likes of Walmart and Reliance Jio but in other parts of the world, that bird has flown. And unlike China, which is flexing its muscles to portray strength at a time of international weakness after the spread of COVID-19, Amazon has used the pandemic to acquire strength (and cash). Jeff Bezos actually became richer during the pandemic.
But competition is a funny thing. The last tech company that almost broke up was Microsoft during the bruising browser wars of the late 1990s. By the time anything could be done, Internet Explorer was already the “king” of browsers. But today, Microsoft doesn’t even make Internet Explorer anymore. It has pivoted itself towards becoming a quieter and more socially responsible tech company. Its former boss Bill Gates is known as the world’s great philanthropist today. So it isn’t out of the question that another company will come and take on Amazon, we just don’t know which one. But Amazon’s dominance highlights the dangers of big tech. And as for Musk, he is only starting his dominance in the electric car industry but with the technological lead Tesla Motors has, one could conceivably ask the question whether in a decade’s time, we will be asking for Tesla’s break-up?
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)