Samar Srivastava, Forbes India
April 24, 2023
A board meeting scheduled for May 2 promises to be the start of the value unlocking process for Reliance Industries [Disclaimer: Reliance Industries is the owner of the Network18 group, which publishes Forbes India]. Shareholders of India’s largest company, which has a presence in industries as diverse as petrochemicals, retail and telecom, will each receive shares in its financial services unit—Jio Financial Services.
User data—what consumers search for, their demographic profile as well as their likes as dislikes—are available to India’s largest telecom company with 426 million users. If it can use that data to underwrite credit for consumers, it has a winner. Jio Financial is in a unique position.
Loans to India’s middle class have grown at three percent in the last year. Compare that with credit to industry that has grown at a mere seven percent and it becomes clear why the company is keen to spin this off an independent entity and list it separately on the bourses. A successful listing could result in telecom and retail being eventually listed separately.
An analysis by Jefferies, a brokerage, shows that loans to India’s consuming class present a large market opportunity. Home loans account for about ₹25,00,000 crore, auto loans for ₹471,400 crore, consumer durable loans for ₹37,000 crore, and microfinance for ₹280,000 crore. And there is the rapidly growing personal loan segment at ₹79,000 crore. These all present a large whitespace for the company to tap into. Jeffries also points out that a key advantage of the business would be their access to low-cost capital due to the high credit rating to Reliance Industries.
The step also marks an important milestone in Chairman Mukesh Ambani’s aim to cement his position in the world’s list of billionaires. At $83.4 billion, Ambani is rank 9 on the 2023 Forbes list of world billionaires. Since the pandemic in March 2020, the second-generation entrepreneur has started work on a new energy business, strengthened his retail operations with the acquisition of Metro Cash and Carry, and broadened Jio’s subscriber base with the launch of 5G services.
As he sets out to independently grow his businesses, Ambani finds himself occupying the largest retailer spot by revenue. In the last year, store count is up 52 percent to 17,225 stores while revenues are up 17 percent to ₹67,000 crore and profit up six percent to ₹2,400 crore.
Reliance Retail has adopted a multi-format approach. There is Ajio.com and JioMart that make up its online offering. Digital plus new commerce accounts for 18 percent of sales, according to CLSA, a brokerage. Reliance Trends is its cut price fashion format. There is the soon-to-be-launched Azorte to compete against the likes of Mango and Zara, as well as Reliance Brands that houses global names like Burberry, Armani Exchange, Canali and Jimmy Choo, among others. Add to that its private label business with brands like Campa Cola and Independence and the growth drivers for the next decade are in place.
“Reliance has been clear about dominating the landscape in any sector it has entered in the last 30 years, whether it is petrochemicals, telecom or retail,” says Devangshu Dutta, founder and CEO of Third Eyesight, a retail consultancy. He believes the company is getting into many sectors or formats to capture a larger share of the consumer wallet.
At Jio, its strategy to add subscribers (mainly from Vodafone Idea), increase average revenue per user as well as spread the 5G network has paid off. At 426 million users, it is now the largest telecom operator in the country with an average revenue per user (ARPU) of ₹177. The business has delivered a topline of ₹29,195 crore and profit after tax of ₹4,881 crore. CLSA expects the launch of its portable 5G device, Jio AirFiber, as well as an affordable 5G smartphone to drive growth.
Add to this the synergies that could play out with Jio Financial Services. The business starts with a net worth of ₹1,07,200 crore, giving its balance sheet the strength to leverage and make loans. Even a conservative gearing of five times net worth would make its loan capacity ₹6,00,000 crore—or twice the size of Bajaj Finance—today.
In the new energy business, the company is working on plans to commence production at its new gigafactory in Jamnagar. The company is yet to share updates on progress on this front.
These developments have prompted upgrades by brokerages who believe Reliance Industries offers a favourable risk reward as the downside is capped on account of strong profit growth. In a recent report, CLSA termed Reliance Industries a ‘bargain buy’. In the last 12 months, sales were up 36 percent to ₹2,17,164 crore, while profits were up 16 percent to ₹70,782 crore. Still, the stock price is down eight percent to ₹2,346 per share, and its market capitalisation stands at ₹15,87,500 crore, making it the most valuable company in India.
They point to key monitorables being the rollout of its green energy ventures as well as the execution in its 5G rollout. For now, the company has a comfortable position with regard to leverage. In the quarter ended September 2022, Reliance Industries had reserves of ₹7,83,283 crore and borrowings of ₹3,16,030 crore, leaving it with scope to borrow if new business opportunities come its way. Ambani usually uses the Reliance AGM to announce new plans. Expect the next meeting in a few months to possibly come up with some.
(With inputs from Varsha Meghani)
(Published in Forbes India)
By Manu Balachandran, Forbes India
Apr 27, 2022
Sometime in 2002, in his mid-20s, Ravi Modi wanted to buy a Mercedes. Not because he was a petrol head or because he wanted to flaunt his newfound success in his hometown, Kolkata.
“My belief was that if you can afford it, buy it,” says Modi, who’s dressed in a blue kurta pyjama at his house in Newtown, Kolkata. His then-four-year-old business, Vedant Fashions, which made popular ethnic wear, Manyavar, was doing reasonably well and money was flowing smoothly. However, as he firmed up his plans to buy a Mercedes, his father, who had earlier inadvertently brought out the entrepreneur in Modi, asked his son a few questions. And then doled out some sound advice.
“He asked me whether I can afford it. I said I can,” the soft-spoken Marwari tells Forbes India. “He asked me if my business was sustainable. I said yes. He said you will require capital. I said yes. He asked me if my business has the potential to grow. And I said yes.” Modi adds: “Then he told me, ‘Thode din ke taklif zindagi bharka aaram, ya thode din ka aaram, zindagi bharki taklif (Pain for a few days, and you can have a lifetime of relaxation, or relax for a few days, and you could have pain for the rest of your life)’.”
That stuck with him forever. Modi skipped his plan to buy a Mercedes, and instead decided to plough back all the profits into the business to avoid falling into a debt trap as he expanded. He stuck with his Honda City for the next 15 years, until his son asked him to change it after a family friend met with an accident. “That’s when I bought my Mercedes in 2017,” Modi says. “All these things don’t matter to me. I am a simple man with no materialistic needs. I like the simple life.”
Modi indeed leads a simple life on the outskirts of Kolkata. Unlike many of his peers who relish the hustle and bustle of city life, he has moved out of his home of 36 years to a calm and greener township where he even grows vegetables. “Whatever vegetables we eat, they come from within the house,” Modi says. He prefers to meet people on the verandah of his house, which overlooks a neatly manicured lawn. The scorching Kolkata heat doesn’t bother him.
“Here, the trees talk to me,” says Modi, who tried 12 houses before shifting to the new one immediately after the first lockdown. He has built a clay tennis court there and is now learning to play the game. Modi has also renounced wearing western clothes, claiming not to have worn one in five years. “We must realise that clothes such as suits aren’t meant for the Indian climate,” he says.
He’s even reduced the time he spends in office, and now goes there only once a week. It hasn’t made any difference to his business. Modi makes his debut on the 2022 Forbes World’s Billionaires List—he’s ranked 1,238 with a net worth of $2.5 billion. As of April 15, Modi’s wealth stood at $3 billion and he is among the youngest billionaires in India.
His 23-year-old company, Vedant Fashions Limited, of which he is chairman and managing director, is worth ₹26,000 crore after it listed on the bourses in February. It has over 600 stores across India and 11 international stores, where it sells everything from men’s kurtas, sherwanis and jackets to women’s lehengas, sarees and gowns. They are sold under brands such as Manyavar, Mohey and Mebaz.
Last year, amid the pandemic, Vedant Fashions closed the year with a revenue of ₹564.81 crore, while net profit stood at ₹132.9 crore. A year before that, revenue was ₹915.54 crore and net profit ₹236.6 crore. Modi’s wife Shilpi has a board seat, while his only child, Vedant, after whom the company is named, is chief marketing officer.
“I am a firm believer in destiny,” says Modi. If it wasn’t for his destiny, the 45-year-old believes he would have perhaps been sitting at his nearly-50-year-old family-run shop in Kolkata’s AC Market, selling menswear, and at best opened one more store to expand the business.
Destined for Success
As a child, Modi, the only son of his parents, was good at mathematics. His father then ran a 140-sq-ft retail store inside AC Market in Kolkata—one of India’s first air-conditioned markets set up some 50 years ago.
“In Class 2, I got 100 in mathematics, and my mother threw a party,” says Modi. “In Class 3, when I got 100, my mother didn’t give a party. That’s when I realised that nobody celebrates the same achievement twice. I needed some kick and I started solving the paper faster.” By the time he appeared for his Class 12 exam, he finished his mathematics papers in 45 minutes, scoring a near cent. “Anybody who remembers me from school days would remember me for mathematics,” says the soft-spoken billionaire.
The untold story of how Ravi Modi built Vedant Fashions—the makers of Manyavar—into a .5 billion behemothThat meant, by the time he was 13, Modi joined his father at their retail store, which sold everything from shirts and pants to jeans, after school. “I found a lot of interest,” says Modi. “Somehow, I didn’t realise that my entire childhood from 13 years went in my store.” While he did contemplate doing an MBA after graduating in commerce from St Xavier’s college, Kolkata, his father suggested otherwise. “The real MBA happened in those nine years between 13 and 22,” says Modi.
At the store, Modi played salesman, often catering to buyers his staff didn’t want to deal with. “I would see that the salesmen would deal with some customers with a lot of attention, and some without,” says Modi. “When I probed them, they said the customers wouldn’t buy. I would ask them if they were astrologers, and used to take it on me to sell stuff to them. That was my kick.” Soon, Modi would end up selling over 20 clothes to a customer who would have come to buy one shirt. “It was the best time of my life,” Modi says. By the time he was 21, he was married, and by 22, Modi became a father.
As the business grew, Modi began to run the show and took decisions that would be a contrast to his father’s. He also introduced Indian wear, manufactured by them, in the store after realising a massive vacuum in the Indian wear category. It was Modi’s first tryst with manufacturing. “But one day, my father said something, and I got hurt,” Modi says. His father had questioned a decision that Modi had taken for ₹20,000. “He said ‘Humko barbad kardoge (Will you ruin us)? I might commit suicide one day.’ I said this is enough, I won’t come from tomorrow.”
He took ₹10,000 from his mother and turned to manufacturing Indian wear, selling the finished products in Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, among others. “I started selling to multi-brand outlets (MBOs),” he says. The inability to hire a creative agency meant Modi had to come up with a name. “I thought what was the purpose of life… it was to earn some respect for oneself,” says Modi. “That’s how we came up with the name Manyavar.” He denies that the choice of the name had anything to with his father’s chiding. “He was someone who would never say something like that,” says Modi. “It’s all destiny. Because there was no plan, and I was happy at the store. We would, at best, have opened one more store.”
With Manyavar, Modi started by selling 20 percent of his stock to Kolkata-based Vishal Mega Mart, to raise enough working capital to sustain his business. He sold the rest of the stock to other outlets. “Vishal Maga Mart was the only place that used to buy on cash,” says Modi. “So initially, for about eight months, the working capital came from them.”
Modi sold kurtas which cost ₹200 at a loss of ₹10 to ensure he was paid in cash. “Just because I was strong in math, I thought I will sell 20 percent of my production to him to get working capital, and from the remaining 80 percent production, I will get revenue. That is how we generated revenue in the first year,” Modi says.
Among others, Manyavar’s clothes were sold at outlets such as the Kashmir Vastralaya collection and Kala Mandir in the early days.
By 2005-06, Modi had begun selling his products to large format stores (LFS)—from Future Group to Shoppers Stop and Westside—building a pan-India presence. Heeding his father’s advice, he ensured he did not take on debt, and instead channelled most of the money into the business.
In 2006, to take care of his ailing father, Modi stepped away from work for some six months. “I used to work like a typical entrepreneur, managing everything. Life was very busy. Then I realised we were unnecessarily involving ourselves in operations. The business was running well without me for six months. From that day I understood, that instead of ROI (return on investment), it should be return on time invested (ROTI). I realised I should not waste time on things where I don’t add any value,” he says.
That took him back to the drawing board—to focus on strategy for the next phase of growth. By 2008, Manyavar set up its first exclusive brand outlet (EBO). “That’s when the real journey began,” says Modi. “Until then, we used to sell for ₹20-25 crore every year.” The company’s first store opened in Bhubaneswar, and over the next year, opened 12 stores. The early ones were opened by the company before it moved to a franchise-led model. “By that time, I was clear that the way forward for any fashion apparel business in India is EBO,” says Modi.
Modi believed multi-brand outlets were becoming more of a hindrance than being facilitators. “They never used to work on data,” he says. “It was difficult to make them understand anything. And because I had spent nine years with consumers, we used to always think of the customers first.”
That means an obsession with data, and efficiency, something Modi spends a considerable amount of time on. “Anything and everything we do, we want to bring efficiency,” he says. “We have one of the highest productivities in retail. We haven’t sold a single garment at discount. Even then, the dead stock in Manyavar is less than 3 percent. We make 30 percent PAT (profit after tax). We don’t make that by charging more to the consumer. That’s an outcome of efficiency. We keep pricing reasonable and despite that, we have the highest margin. Efficiency is a key pillar in our entire organisation.”
Today, the company operates mostly on a franchise-owned-franchise-operated model. “When we started, we had a COCO (company-owned-company-operated), COFO (company-owned-franchise operated), FOFO (franchise-owned-franchise-operated), and all kinds of models. By 2016-17, we converted all our stores into the FOFO model. People were doing backward integration, and we felt doing forward integration was the way to go. We will do the marketing, designing and supply chain, and not do anything else.” Over the past few years, Modi claims several young customers have become franchise owners, including doctors and consultants, who see massive potential in the brand.
In 2016, the company pulled a coup of sorts by landing then Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli as brand ambassador. “He had just become captain It was the best time of his life,” says Modi. Over the next few years, Kohli led the brand campaign and Modi even roped in his girlfriend Anushka Sharma for a commercial prior to their marriage. Today, the brand has actors Amitabh Bachchan, Alia Bhatt, Ranveer Singh and Kartik Aaryan as brand ambassadors.
Today, Manyavar operates some 1.3 million sq ft of retail stores in the country, choosing not to chase the number of stores. Every year, Modi wants to add between 1.5 lakh sq ft and 2 lakh sq ft of retail space. “The whole business is on a variable, asset-light model,” he says. “There is no capex, there is no fixed expense other than corporate head office salary. Every rupee of working capital can generate an equal rupee of PAT, with 90-95 percent free cash flow. Only Unilever will have a ROCE (return on capital employed) of 100 percent, and we might be the second, and within a year or two, we will be at more than 100 percent.”
The untold story of how Ravi Modi built Vedant Fashions—the makers of Manyavar—into a .5 billion behemothThe company operates in 230 cities, and is busy firming up plans to open stores in 150 new cities. A significant portion of its customers are spread across Southern India, with Bengaluru and Hyderabad emerging as the two big centres. “We have a cluster approach where we believe in 50 or 60 markets, where we have numerous stores,” Modi says. “This is just the beginning of a multi-decade growth opportunity for the category.”
Along the way, in 2017, as business expanded rapidly, Modi decided to turn to private equity, not because he needed money for expanding the business. “We always thought that there is a limit for wisdom and knowledge,” says Modi. “We had been meeting private equity players since 2008 and we thought why not get a good partner. We liked Kedaara Capital and its approach. Money was not the intent, but to have a wise board and to understand whether we were missing on anything.” Kedaara Capital acquired 7.5 percent stake in the company.
“They’ve ridden well on the sector’s growth and consolidation into modern trade, as the desire for brands has grown among buyers of Indian traditional clothing,” says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight, a management consulting firm, and managing partner of PVC Partners, an early-stage investment & advisory firm. “Also, the wedding market is more recession-proof than many other segments, which has been a favourable factor during the pandemic.”
Last year, despite the pandemic, Modi says Vedant Fashions closed the year with better profit margins, despite most states putting a ban on weddings and other social gatherings. “The beauty of our business is that while business had reduced, our margins were 30 percent PAT,” Modi says. “The entire business is on the variable model and even franchises didn’t lose money.”
In India, the men’s wedding and celebration wear market was estimated to be worth approximately ₹13,300 crore as of FY20, according to brokerage firm HDFC Securities. It is projected to increase to between ₹17,000 crore and ₹18,000 crore by 2025. In comparison, the women’s wedding and celebration wear market is significantly larger, estimated to be worth approximately ₹7,500 crore as of 2020. It is expected to grow to ₹95,000 crore and ₹100,000 crore by 2025.
“Seventy-three percent of Vedant Fashions Limited’s (VFL) franchisees have operated its stores for three or more years and 65 percent of the sales of its customers from its franchisee-owned EBOs are derived from franchisees having two or more stores is testament to the success of EBO distribution model,” HDFC Securities said in a report in February. “Through a network of over 300 franchisees as of September 2021, VFL has demonstrated a track record of commanding a high initial capital commitment and, in return, providing all necessary support in connection with identifying potential locations for new stores, managing multi-channel advertising on a national and regional basis, assisting in-store development and inventory management, directly managing the supply chain and providing detailed training programmes for store staff and franchisees.”
Today, 90 percent of the company’s business comes from EBO with about 8 percent from online models, a segment that Modi’s son, Vedant, and his team are extensively looking to build. “We might be the only brand with such a high percentage from EBOs,” Modi says. “The segment is unorganised, fragmented, and understanding this is a journey. Because we were data-focussed, we could work it out.” Along the way, Modi says his biggest advantage has been in reducing the inconvenience of wedding purchases.
“Pre-Manyavar, the wedding shopping experience was a problem,” Modi says. “You had to go a few times to the store for measurements or alterations. Now people don’t have the time. We are a one-stop solution where work can be done in one hour.”
Now, as the company looks at avenues for its next phase of growth, Modi has forayed into categories within the wedding market that can drive sales. The company recently launched Twamev, a premium collection of men’s wedding wear, and Manthan, a cheaper option to its popular Manyavar wear. “When you look at the Indian pyramid, there are five consumer layers. Manyavar and Mohey are in the third layer which is the sweet spot, comprising the typical aspirational middle class,” Modi says. “In India, one crore weddings take place, and 30 lakh to 35 lakh marriages happen in that category, which is about 50 percent in terms of value. We believe that is the largest segment, but now we have a strategy where we are going one level up and down.”
While Manyavar caters to the ₹5 lakh to ₹50 lakh wedding market, the ₹50 lakh to ₹5 crore market is being catered to by Twamev, while the less than ₹5 lakh is being addressed by the Manthan range. “We believe once the category grows, we should be there in all these three layers. So, there is clear demarcation and no overlap,” Modi says.
All that means that the reclusive billionaire, who started out two decades ago after his tryst with destiny, is getting ready for a long period of growth. It also helps that he has more time to plot his strategy for it. “People talk about wealth, I believe the real wealth I have earned is time for myself,” Modi says. “The mission is to be a dominant player in the celebration space. We have cracked an unorganised market and we’ve been able to organise it and scale it. Now, the vision is to instill pride in Indian wear.”
Modi seems determined to do that. And he is certain to walk that talk, if the two decades are anything to go by.
(This article was published in Forbes India.)
(The following is the video and the text of the Commencement Speech by Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight, at the Convocation of the batch graduating in 2019 from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Patna, India.)
I would like to just share a few learnings from my own career. I hope some of these learnings will provide you some food for thought, and if they stick, I hope they prove valuable to you in some way in your own career.
I think as a graduate of a professional institute, there are 5 life-skills or attributes or pieces of advice that could be useful to you.
Thank you so much for patiently hearing me out. I hope some of the advice would have resonated with you, and will prove useful. I wish you all the very best and offer you my congratulations, on behalf of all the other alumni – welcome to the industry. Thank you!
India has a rich culture and ecosystem of social enterprises, non-profits and many other social purpose organisations that serve the needs of many segments of society within a vast landscape. However, for a foreign investor looking for impact investing or other philanthropic opportunities in India, it can often prove to be a challenging journey. Devangshu Dutta (Third Eyesight/PVC Partners) and the Audrey Selian (Artha Platform) together provided a landscape overview of India, highlighted key challenges and pitfalls to look out for, and shared an insider view for international investors in this first part of AVPN’s India series.
(If you’re in a hurry, go to the Slideshare presentation, and bookmark this post for a complete read later.)
These pages usually focus on the consumer and retail sector, its constituents, its problems and the opportunities therein.
The consumer and retail sector is all about choice, and it is worth noting that we’ve just concluded what was possibly the most massive consumer event in the world. I’m referring, of course, to the Indian elections, where more than 500 “consumers” were bombarded with above-the-line and below-the-line marketing by various organisations pushing their brand, product (candidate) and services (ideology and manifesto).
The sum total of analyses of India’s 2014 election results already exceeds what one sane person can read in a lifetime. The BJP and its allies have won a majority of seats unprecedented among non-Congress alliances, in the first-past-the-post system. While opinions may be fractured, the Parliamentary mandate is clear.
In this context and in this spirit, it is also relevant for us to take the big picture view. Retail is a sector that touches the lives of virtually every citizen of this country on a daily basis. So anything that affects their lives and their aspirations have a direct bearing on the retail business as well.
India’s citizens are creative and entrepreneurial. They are hungry for growth. While they are respectful of heritage, they are also devastated by the decline that has come about over decades, centuries, and are determined to change this situation. What they need is the government to shoulder its responsibilities.
If there is one narrative that can pull diverse, divided strands of opinion together, it is “inclusive growth”. Throughout his campaign Narendra Modi has repeated the mantra: “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (literally “all together, development for all”). In recent weeks, on more than one occasion he has extended this to mean pulling together the efforts of leaders across the political spectrum as well. At the time of this writing, the Prime Minister elect Modi has already set out to manage expectations. He has positioned himself as “mazdoor (labourer) no. 1”, and is asking the electorate for 10-years, making it amply clear that there is no magic broom to remove the dirt of corruption overnight, nor a magic hand that will conjure out ever-increasing incomes out of bottomless magic pockets.
While there are many problems to be tackled at the macro and the micro-level, I think the “business of government” can be captured broadly in an 8-point agenda, and each of these has a significant bearing on the consumers of this country, and the businesses they transact with:
1. Healthcare: While India’s average life-expectancy has improved steadily since Independence it still hangs in the mid-60s while China’s and Brazil’s is over 73. India offers less than one bed for every thousand of its citizens, while both China and Brazil are well over 2. The United Kingdom, whose National Health Service is constantly lambasted as being “overstretched”, offers about 4 hospital beds per 1000 people, and the average for former British colonies is also around 4. Public healthcare infrastructure in India – from primary to speciality – remains critically under-funded, and the public hospitals that exist are chronically under-equipped and under-staffed. Where equipment exists, it is underutilised, as commission-seeking individuals refer patients to the burgeoning private clinics and hospitals. Over the last decade or so private healthcare providers have achieved prominence in the media and among investors, and concessional access to public infrastructure and assets such as land, but they have proved to be consistently out of reach of the general public. Livelihoods and family savings are routinely destroyed in the search for better-quality healthcare in the new, profit-maximising business models. Health should be every citizen’s fundamental right, as one of the foundation stones of a strong nation. It is a right that is denied daily to hundreds of millions. Providing health support is the core business of the government, and needs urgent attention and substantial investment dispersed nationally.
2. Power: India’s power consumption average is about one-third of the Chinese average and less than a tenth of the USA, and this is not only because Indians have smaller homes or live more frugally, but because hundreds of millions of Indians spend most of their days and nights without electricity. If you think you can get a sense of the deprivation from a household that gets power a few hours a day, you actually have to visit one where power availability has improved due to grid power or micro or off-grid availability through solar or biomass units – the enormous impact that the improved power availability has on the lifestyle, livelihood and quality of life can only be truly gauged then. Across the nation, private participation has been invited into the power sector at different times, but the execution has been mixed. Private companies would also like to serve those areas where population concentration and decent financials allow the private provider to create a profitable business. Large swathes of the Indian population lie outside of such areas, and the onus is upon the government to provide the required electricity for households to live a fuller life, for students to complete their lessons, for healthcare and administrative facilities to run effectively, for small entrepreneurs to be able to grow their businesses.
3. Clean water: Imagine one train crash every day of the year, each killing all passengers on board. Sounds catastrophic, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t that get some serious attention? Well, it is estimated that around 1600 deaths are caused every day by diarrhoea alone (higher than the train wreck fatalities), and that 21% of communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water. The problem is not only in far flung villages, but acute even in the largest cities of the country. Both those numbers are shamefully high for a nation that wants to see itself as a global superpower. There are no technological gaps for effectively harnessing the existing water resources, and for maintaining cleaning, distribution and recovery systems – only management gaps.
4. Transportation infrastructure: While India has one of the largest rail networks in the world, at about 20 kilometres per 1,000 sq km of land area it compares unfavourably to highly industrialised European countries (Germany: 115 km per thousand sq. km., UK: 65, France: 53) or even the large less densely populated USA (26 km per thousand sq. km.). On road development India’s picture has improved in the last 15 years, but it still trails world-leading economies in terms of length as well as quality. Poor transportation systems cut people off from economic opportunities, and force them to migrate to already overloaded cities, perpetuating problems in both urban and rural areas. Historically, all strong nations, democratic or otherwise, have flourished due to extensive, superior transportation networks. Where people and goods can move quickly and freely, both trade and culture flourish, and build the strongest ties that bind people together.
5. Education: This is another area which has systematically been under-invested in by the government. From pre-schools to universities, the growth of educational institutions for the last 30-40 years has predominantly been in private hands, where affordability is not the prime driver. The number of seats in government-run institutions has not grown in proportion with the population, let alone in correlation with the demand. Access remains a problem, as does the quality. There is no reason why government-run educational institutions need to be bad – there are enough examples around the country within government schools and colleges, where organisational systems and individual intent produces excellence. Without immediate and adequate government focus on education, the massive young population of India will go waste, at worst it would be a ticking time-bomb of under-skilled frustrated underachievers.
6. Environment: This might seem like a strange inclusion in this “development-oriented” list. However, it is essential that the environment should be on a list of core items that the government needs to manage well. The government is usually in the news for either not doing enough (such as not monitoring the systematic encroachment in and destruction of the Aravalli Hills) or, at the other extreme, getting in the way by holding back environmental approvals to development projects. Another term for the environment is “the commons”, reflecting that the natural resources belong to the people, together. The commons need not just protection, but regeneration, resurgence. Defence and political experts around the world list climate change and clashes over natural resources as among the highest conflict risks in coming years, and the evidence is frequently visible. When “growth” is measured only by those activities that extract and deplete the common resources, support and encouragement is provided for those individuals and companies that do this the “best”. It is short-termism and selfishness of the worst sort. Evidence of large scale climate-related changes and the debilitating impact on civilisations exists around the world and across the span of history; the closest might be the Ganga-Saraswati civilisation that is said to have dispersed due to the depletion of one of its greatest rivers. We don’t even need to forecast huge impacts far into the future. Millions of Indians increasingly are born and live with chronic diseases that are related to deteriorating air quality, depleted water resources, polluted soils and disappearing vegetation. Indigenous natural species of plants and animals are declining, mostly invisible to the nation at large. A comprehensive, evolving framework is needed that goes beyond short-term planning and management by knee-jerk reactions.
7. Competition: This is an area which requires little investment, relative to the other items on this list, but a huge amount of intent and follow-through. No economic system is perfect and, indeed, it is the imperfections and discontinuities that provide business opportunities. When the imperfections are exploited by many, competitive forces balance each other out. The need to diversify is well-understood by people who care to think about risks. Concentration of efforts, resources, power behind a few initiatives or organisations can bring about disproportionately good results, but also creates the risk of wipeout. Diversity is a challenge because it creates fragmentation, but it is also an essential source of innovation, combating not just present risks but future threats as well. Self-moderation is too much to expect from even the most enlightened of large business leaders and even the most progressive of industries. Anti-competitive and customer protection frameworks have improved in recent years, but are still understaffed and underequipped. As the economy grows, so does the need to provide oversight against unethical behaviour by large organisations.
8. Accountability: None of the above can truly happen without transparency in governance, and productivity in public service i.e. respect for schedules, budgets and commitments. Measures such as Right to Information (RTI) have moved the country several steps up the transparency ladder, but accountability to “service deliverables” is still missing in a vast number of people employed in government departments. Entry into “government service” is seen as a ticket to a reasonably comfortable employment if you are inclined to not rock the boat. The idea is to not question the status quo as far as possible, and to ensure that the outcomes for the “overclass” are taken care of. This attitude needs to change. In fact a small start could be made by replacing the phrase “government service” with “public service” – the business of government is to serve the public at large, and this needs to be recognised and acknowledged by everyone involved in it. Efforts in all the other areas will fall flat if accountability and productivity are not embedded into the money and efforts invested. (Imagine if we could sign SLAs – service level agreements – with each and every individual hired for public service roles!) The roles that accountability brings with it include “upholding the law” and “enabling an environment where each citizen has a fair chance of success”.
Someone else might come up with a slightly different list – this is mine, the seven pillars and the overarching beam. I’ve not listed the areas in any specific order of priority. Some of them need more government intervention, some need less private intervention, a few (such as education) need both. These are all areas that are the foundation on which everything else is built. These are the areas which, to a very large extent, determine the levels of dignity with which a country’s citizens lead their lives.
In this day and age, the government is not needed to run steel mills, airlines or even handicraft retail stores. But without high quality and high availability ensured by the government in the above areas, even the most capable individual will find it easier to build a life and even the best private enterprise will find it more profitable to do business elsewhere in the world.
A much-followed new-generation business leader recently rhetorically asked in a social media post that, if we have an economy swinging towards services with a large chunk of it being technology, “Why do we need government?”
The reasons above, my friend, are why and where we need government, because business is not delivering on these areas in an equitable manner, and these are areas where technology will not necessarily provide all the answers. We have years of evidence of this, in some cases decades, and it is time we choose to move.
By and large, most people would rather choose to move something, than move somewhere (else). And the retail business will be one of the first to benefit.