FOUR YEARS AGO, Mukesh Ambani transformed the communications industry in the country by providing a mobile service at prices thought unbelievable until it happened. Now he has spelt out where he would steer Reliance Jio and possibly the country’s digital fortunes. Appearing online on Reliance Industries’ annual general meeting on July 15th—shareholders could participate virtually through the company’s recently launched video conferencing service JioMeet—Ambani revealed that Jio has developed a ‘complete 5G solution’, using entirely Indian technologies and solutions. Not only will Jio launch a 5G service in India, he said, it will also look to export these solutions to other telecom operators globally. He also unveiled a slew of services, from a mega video-streaming platform that will bring all OTT services under one umbrella; broadband services for small and large enterprises; a mixed reality glass, Jio Glass, which can bring teachers and students together in 3D virtual rooms to conduct holographic classes; and there were also more details on its ambitious idea of using WhatsApp and JioMart to connect customers directly to kirana stores. But most importantly, the rumoured investment by Google turned out to be true. Google was going to pick up a 7.7 per cent stake in Reliance Jio Platforms for $4.5 billion, and will also work together to develop an entry-level smartphone capable of running 5G phones. His speech with its ‘Made-in-India’, ‘Made-for-India’ and ‘Made-for-the-World’ products had the touch of the Government’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ push. “I believe that the time has come,” he said, “for a truly global digital product and services company to emerge from India, and to be counted among the best in the world.”
Reliance Jio Platforms may be one of the most prominent examples of this swadeshi turn but other sectors are also riding the train. Far away from the large cities, the thousands of small garment manufacturing units in Tiruppur had fallen silent once Covid-19 broke out across the globe. The economy of what is known as the knitwear capital of India—whose 10,000 small and large garment manufacturing units in Tamil Nadu are said to account for over 90 per cent of India’s cotton knitwear exports, many for some of the world’s most famous clothing brands—had collapsed. No new orders were coming in; even the old ones were being cancelled. In the early part of the lockdown, some of the garment manufacturers began to get calls from the Government. “The district administration was asking us if we could make some PPE [personal protective equipment] suits for hospitals in our area,” says Raja M Shanmugham, the president of the Tiruppur Exporters’ Association. “None of us here knew what a PPE was… But we said, ‘Of course, if it has to do with garments, we can do it.”
A PPE market was virtually nonexistent in the country then. A small number of firms manufactured medical wear such as gowns worn in hospitals, but no Indian company really made body suits such as PPEs, ones which are seam-sealed and designed to make their wearers safe from any potential infection. There was panic all around. A surge of cases was expected. China, which makes the most number of PPEs in the world, was also beginning to impose restrictions on the export of this garment. This was also the time when images began to appear of doctors in small Indian towns and cities—without the availability of PPEs—treating Covid-19 positive patients wearing raincoats. The garment manufacturers in Tiruppur started in a small way. After learning the process of manufacturing these garments and getting their samples approved, at first only a few units started making these PPEs. “But the orders kept coming in. From other districts, then other states. So we had to keep expanding,” Shanmugham says. “It started as a completely humanitarian gesture. But we soon realised this could be a business opportunity too.”
Across the country, both large and small manufacturers, began to make PPEs. For a market that didn’t exist three months ago, India is now believed to have become the world’s second largest producer of PPE suits
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In all, Shanmugham estimates, around 150 to 200 garment manufacturers churned out somewhere close to three million PPE suits (which included, apart from the full body coveralls, masks, gloves, head and shoes covers). “There was a lot of panic in those days,” Shanmugham says, “I used to tell the government authorities, ‘Don’t worry. If it becomes a problem, we at Tiruppur can make enough PPEs for the entire country.’” But it wasn’t just the garment manufacturers of Tiruppur. Across the country, both large and small manufacturers, from specialists in niche clothing products like sportswear to those making pieces for the world’s largest clothing brands, from companies like the Aditya Birla Group and Arvind Mills to small-time manufacturers working out of industrial clusters, began to make PPEs. For a market that didn’t exist three months ago, India is now believed to have become the world’s second largest producer of PPE suits. A few weeks ago, satisfied that there was likely to be no shortage in the near future, the Government even lifted the embargo on export of PPE suits and with it many manufacturers believe an entire new industry, one they hadn’t ever considered before, has now emerged. India now has, according to a report by Invest India, the country’s investment promotion agency, a Rs 7,000-crore (nearly $1 billion) PPE market. The report also points that the global PPE industry, valued at $52.7 billion, is expected to touch $92.5 billion by 2025. Not all PPE manufacturers are, however, pleased. Shanmugham claims that constant new rules around PPE manufacturing is leading to PPE kits, earlier cleared for their safety, now being rejected. “Exports of PPE kits won’t pick up because only [export of] PPE coveralls are being allowed right now. Not masks, for instance. Clients abroad want to buy it in totality. Not piecemeal,” he says.
WITH NEW CONSUMER needs emerging following the lockdown, many companies saw an opportunity. Food delivery platforms turned into grocery suppliers to provide contactless purchases of essentials. Some firms, like the Indian edtech firm Think and Learn which runs the app Byju’s, are seeing enormous numbers turn to their app. The most crucial need, of course, has been around that of healthcare. In the absence of any new drug or vaccine to combat Covid-19, Indian scientists and healthcare professionals have been trying to rediscover and repurpose old drugs. But they have veered from the potential benefits of one old drug to another, often driven by very little scientific evidence.
Expectedly, there have been shortages. The most recent being around the drug Remdesivir, originally developed by the American biotechnology firm Gilead Sciences for use against Ebola fever. Till about a week back, a vial of Remdesivir, priced at about Rs 5,400 per vial, was being sold, according to reports, for as high as Rs 40,000 in the black market. The Indian pharma companies, Cipla and Hetero, having separately entered into licensing agreements with Gilead Sciences, are now ramping up the production of their versions of the drug. There have been worries over other drugs too. Many Indian drug companies, for instance, began working upon Favipiravir, an old Japanese drug that is now off-patent. Glenmark Pharmaceutical acquired permissions to produce its version of the drug last month. Another firm, Lasa Supergenerics, which produces APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients) for veterinary medicine is also awaiting permissions to be able to use the API of the drug for the Indian market. “We started working on the drug in March, right when we came to know it was a drug of interest. We didn’t want to take a chance where it might later prove crucial but it isn’t widely available,” says Omkar Herlekar, the Chairman of Lasa Supergenerics. Without permissions yet to make the drug available in India, Herlekar is currently exporting the API of the drug to other countries like Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Iran.
The most sudden opportunity however arrived, not because of Covid-19, but the border skirmish with China, when the Indian Government banned a number of Chinese-owned apps, most notably, that of TikTok’s. Overnight, an estimated 200 million users of TikTok in India were up for grabs. A number of new and old Indian apps have since tried to capture this market. Among them, the most established is that of Roposo. The platform had already been growing rapidly reaching about 50 million users, according to Avinash Saxena, the cofounder of Roposo and Vice President of Glance (the company that acquired Roposo last year). But in the weeks after the ban on TikTok, it has shot up to 75 million users. By the month-end, they expect to reach 100 million. “Right now, there are about 40 lakh users creating about 12 million videos on Roposo daily,” he says. Roposo, however, is quite different from TikTok. It does not have a singular feed of short videos, but multiple ones. “What happens with a single feed is that the content becomes very monolithic. You will see just one or two kinds of content pieces. The same lip-sync format again and again,” Saxena says.
Roposo has hyper short videos from around 30 channels, based on diverse interests such as films, news, humour and devotion, in about 12 languages to chose from. The platform was acquired by InMobi group’s Glance last year. Glance, which pushes content through locked phone screens, is backed by, among others, PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel. Through Glance, Saxena says, Roposo finds another outlet to deliver its content. He is expectedly thrilled with the recent turn of events in the tech sector. “I keep telling people, there has never been a greater moment for India’s digital startups,” he says.
Others are joining this technological race in the creation of desi apps. The most prominent is Ambani’s JioMeet, a video conferencing app that looks uncannily like Zoom. With the recent investments and its suite of many apps, either developed or in the works, many have begun to wonder if Ambani might not eventually create a super-app like China’s ‘one-stop shop’ app WeChat where a user can do multiple things, from hailing a cab or making payments for purchases to chatting with friends and a host of other things without once exiting the app.
The streaming platform Zee5 is also working towards becoming an Indian super-app. The platform already streams original movies, TV shows and live news. Recently, they added a gaming platform within their app. Now they want to come up with an Indian answer to TikTok. “There has been an explosion in the Indian smartphone market. But not all smartphones are born alike… There [is a study] which shows one out of three Android users in India constantly look at what app or photo to delete [to make space for more photos and apps],” says Rajneel Kumar, Business Head (Expansion Projects & Head Products), ZEE5. “Just one destination [app] with multiple uses would be ideal.” ZEE5’s version of the hypershort-form video platform called HiPi, Kumar says, will be launched in about a month’s time. Interestingly, it will exist within the ZEE5 app. While this will allow it to leverage ZEE5’s existing active user base of about 80 million, the platform will also seek to attract other users. Kumar says they have already got around 300 established social media influencers to help them woo these users. More, he says, will come soon.
The potential of Indian businesses in making swadeshi more than just a slogan can be seen in the example of Roshan Baid. As managing director of Paragon Apparels. Baid runs one of the largest sportswear manufacturing companies in the country, his four units employing around 4,500 individuals producing goods for several international brands and also his own label, Alcis Sports. He became one of the earliest manufacturers of PPEs in the country. His units already owned around three hot air seam-sealing machines, an item that is considered crucial in making PPE suits safe for its wearers. Now he had 17 more machines imported. There were considerable challenges. Although he was able to secure permissions to operate one of his units during lockdown, he had to convince his employees to return to work. He then had to send his samples all the way to South India Textile Research Association in Coimbatore, an industry body, to have them approved. Many of the early samples were rejected. But Baid kept working on it, he says, till they had got it right. “You have to understand all this was just so new. We didn’t even have Indian specifications to go by,” Baid says. “Earlier, we went by European specifications. So you had coveralls which were just too large and such long pants. We had to do everything from scratch.” At one point, Baid’s manufacturing unit was making between 8,000 to 10,000 PPE suits daily.
Within the Indian market, there has also been a profusion of poor-quality PPE suits. “These are made of laminated material. So not only is it risky, it becomes unbearable for its wearers,” Baid says. According to him, this is still a new industry, and gradually more checks and balances will come in place. Baid is currently in the process of getting some of his products exported. Even when some semblance of normalcy returns and his apparel business resumes large-scale operations, he will continue to produce PPE kits. “It is really quite amazing. Most of us didn’t know a thing about PPEs,” says Baid.