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The way we were, the way we are

Business Standard Team | December 28, 2002

Should the czars of the Indian television industry be breaking open the champagne on December 31? Or, should they be mourning another tough year fought in bazaars across the country?

To be sure they have plenty to celebrate. Take a step back 10 years and see how times have changed on the small screen.

Television production has zoomed meteorically from 800,000 back in 1992 to 6.5 million in calendar year 2002. But competition from new players like Samsung and LG has (caused almost as much blood-letting as an episode of The Sopranos) transformed the industry beyond recognition.

The result: the price of a 20-inch set has fallen from Rs 17,000 a decade ago to around Rs 10,000. Prices may fall even further now that the Chinese are greedily surveying the market.

It's the same story in one industry after another: cosy, quasi-monopolies have given way to brutal, cut-throat competition. In the auto industry, three companies ruled the roads back in 1992.

Since then, they've had to make space on the highway for 12 new players including world giants like General Motors, Ford and Toyota.

Between them, the survivors make 30 different models that are all jostling for the buyer's eye. Total production has jumped from about 150,000 in 1992 to about 450,000 in the first seven months from April to November 2002.

And the two-wheeler industry has lived up to expectations and become the second largest in the world, making about 3.4 million vehicles in the first seven months of 2002. About 1.4 million bikes were made in 1992.

As India moves into another new year -- and the economy is hopefully picking up once again -- it's as good a time as any to look back at the way we were 10 years ago. To march forward to a new drummer, we must also understand how far we've come.

Ten years ago India was gingerly stepping into a Brave New World. Finance Minister Manmohan Singh had set the ball rolling with his epoch-making 1991 budget and its effects were only just filtering through.

In faraway Seattle and Silicon Valley companies like Microsoft were putting together the building blocks for the Internet Age. Change was coming at cyberspeed -- but only a few people predicted how swiftly it would overtake us.

Certainly, it's a different world out there in more ways than one. Cost-cutting isn't a dirty word any longer. Indian companies have learnt to live in a world where they aren't protected by high tariff walls.

And, as competition has climbed steeply, the balance has shifted away from the producer.

"One of the most important aspects of the last 10 years is the introduction of competition in the Indian market. This has also led to great benefits to customers," says Kiran Karnik, secretary-general, Nasscom.

Take a look at that legend of Indian industry, Tata Iron and Steel. In 1992 it was still one of the giants of Indian industry.

In the last decade it has slashed its workforce from 80,000 to around 45,000. The company's now revelling in its new-found status as one of the world's lowest cost steel producers and it is still hunting for ways to cut costs further.

There's no question that many rust-belt industries have been forced to learn about competition hurriedly and painfully.

But one group of companies knew about competition even before they learnt how to walk. In 1992 a four-year-old company named Satyam Computer Services had 100 employees and it had just held a Rs 15-crore (Rs million) IPO.

It was only after the IPO that a young entrepreneur named Ramalinga Raju turned his attention away from the family construction business and another company named Satyam Spinning Mills.

Still in Hyderabad, Dr Reddy's Labs was another promising fledgling that had already established its credentials in the bulk drugs business. Its sales for 1992-93: Rs 106 crore (Rs 1.06 billion).

Its turnover is currently about Rs 1,700 crore (Rs 17 billion) and it has established beachheads in countries around the world including the United States.

"We moved up the value chain faster and in the process acquired capabilities and infrastructure to become a discovery-led global pharma company during the decade," says G V Prasad, CEO, Dr Reddy's Labs.

Bangalore, as we all know, was on the threshold of an even more dramatic change.

Back in 1992 about 13 software companies in Bangalore were registered with the Software Technology Parks of India. By 1999 that had soared to 503. This year that's climbed to over 1,100.

The budding stars had already demonstrated their abilities to generate super-profits. Infosys, for instance, went public in 1992 and by 1993-94 it had revenues of Rs 30 crore (Rs 300 million) and profits of Rs 9 crore (Rs 90 million). In the same year, Wipro's turnover was Rs 573 crore (Rs 5.73 billion).

Wipro's market capitalisation this year was Rs 37,000 crore (Rs 370 billion) and Infosys at Rs 31,000 crore (Rs million) followed it.

Wipro's Azim Premji, even after the hi-tech boom petered out, is still reckoned to own shares in his company worth Rs 30,710 crore (Rs 307.10 billion).

How about a few more statistics to jog memories about the way we were?

Manmohan Singh's budget had already launched India into a new economic orbit but the results hadn't begun to show by end-1992.

Foreign investment wasn't much to write home about and in 1991-92 it was a mere $133 million. That climbed by 2000-01 to $5.09 billion -- still a pittance compared to the Chinese, of course.

And, what about software, the star performer of the '90s? In 1992 Bangalore's software programmers were just feeling their way around the emerging cyberworld.

Software exports totalled about $225 million and it touched $1 billon only in 1996-97. In 2002-03 it should hit about $9.5 billion and it isn't about to stop climbing.

Says Karnik: "The last couple of years have also shown that the great Indian infotech boom was not a flash in the pan. The infotech sector has withstood the global technology slump and is growing at over 30 per cent."

At another end of the spectrum take a look at the banking sector. Back in 1992, it would have been a safe prediction that the highly unionised banking sector was entirely impervious to change.

But it would have been wrong. Nowadays, delays in the public sector banks are more likely to be because so many people have grabbed one of the generous voluntary retirement schemes and made their escape from behind the counter.

If you don't want to bank with the public sector there is also plenty of choice. There are now eight new private sector banks that have opened almost 1,000 new branches between them.

That doesn't count the 42 foreign banks that now operate in India compared to 22 a decade ago. What's more, there are almost 7,000 ATM machines for quicker transactions.

But the biggest changes have been in the consumer's mind. The Indian consumer force fed for decades on shoddy merchandise is slowly learning how to assert himself.

Once he didn't have a choice but now he doesn't want second best. The Ambassador has made way for snazzy, new models like the Hyundai Sonata, the Ford Mondeo and the Mercedes-Benz.

In fact, the statistics often don't tell the full story about the extraordinary changes in people's buying habits. Maruti Udyog reckons that a sizeable chunk of buyers change cars within four years.

And about 62 per cent buy their cars on loan. That figure climbs to about 80 per cent for motorcycle buyers.

Move off the road and into the house and it's the same story. The average age of homebuyers has fallen from around 45 to about 30.

What's more, the housing finance business, minuscule in 1992, has been galloping along at about 30 per cent annually since 1998-99, when around Rs 7,600 crore (Rs 76 billion) was lent to customers.

During this financial year the banks and housing finance companies are expected to give out loans worth Rs 22,500 crore (Rs 225 billion).

To be sure, the upheavals of the decade have taken a grievous toll.

The changing industrial scene in Andhra Pradesh is an example of what has happened across the country. In Hyderabad, for instance, public sector giants like Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Ltd and Hindustan Machine Tools came close to shutting shop during the decade.

Two other private sector players, the Pennar Group and the Nagarjuna Group, are floundering.

Then, there was granite and aqua culture -- two industries which provided considerable rural employment and earned foreign exchange in Andhra Pradesh.

Both flourished in the first half of the '90s. But they were almost extinct by the end of the decade.

In their place have come new revenue-spinners. The pharma industry in the state recorded a turnover of over Rs 8,000 crore (Rs 80 billion) in 2001-02, as against Rs 1,700 crore (Rs 17 billion) in 1991-92.

With over 700 small and medium sized units, Hyderabad now accounts for one-third of the country's pharma industry turnover.

The state exported Rs 1,800 crore (Rs 18 billion) worth bulk drugs and formulations to over 70 countries in 2001-02. But the decline of the older industries has hit employment in the state.

The same story has been repeated across the country and across industries. Industrial houses that were going great guns in the early '90s have almost vanished off the map.

Even the older business houses that failed to understand the new spirit of the times have almost been wiped away.

Take the Mafatlals, who were making plans for giant petrochemical projects in the early '90s. Or, look at S K Birla who was still a sizeable player during that era.

In their place have come newcomers who spotted an opportunity and made a quick grab for it. In 1992, Naresh Goyal was running a travel agency called Jetair which was a general sales agent for a large number of foreign airlines.

Jet Airways came into existence only on May 5 1993. Similarly, Subhash Chandra of Zee was trading in rice and handling other family businesses.

What was the secret of success during the '90s? That's tough to tell but it's clear that the Indian middle class has had a greater impact in business than ever before.

N R Narayana Murthy of Infosys, flaunts his middle class background and won't move out of his house in Bangalore's Jayanagar.

Or, look at Sanjeev Aggarwal, who was an executive with Motorola and who quit to start Daksh e-services, one of the country's most successful business process outsourcing companies.

Aggarwal says that the rise of venture capitalism has enabled executives like him to take a chance and become capitalists in their own right.

It isn't only the venture capitalists who've changed the way things run. The arrival of the foreign institutional investors with their batteries of analysts has forced Indian businessmen to think differently.

In the '80s, says one businessman who doesn't want to be named, the best way to make money was to indulge in asset stripping.

But the FIIs looked suspiciously at such businessmen and that changed the rules of the game. There was more money to be made by making moves that pushed up share valuations.

Proof of that came from the rise of the scrupulously honest Azim Premji -- an unlikely candidate, if ever there was one, to be the world's richest Indian.

Where would India have been without the software industry and new industries like IT-enabled services? Nasscom's Karnik points out that India wouldn't have had such a comfortable foreign exchange balance if these industries hadn't turned out world-beating performances.

Hotelier and MP Lalit Suri puts it more strongly: "We would have been like one of the African countries."

Certainly, the Indian software industry has created a psychological, gung-ho spirit that didn't exist previously. Indians executives are now more confident that they can be world-beaters on a global stage.

"I think IT has definitely given us that edge for us to do world-class business in the international market today," says J Rajagopal, director, global healthcare practice, TCS.

One dishonourable mention must be made of two companies that aren't exactly highfliers.

Air-India had 25 planes a decade ago and it was already feeling the capacity shortage. Today it has 23 planes and has given up all efforts to compete in the market.

Similarly, Indian Airlines had 56 planes in 1992 and it now has 58. The new airlines like Jet and Sahara have swallowed up all the new passengers.

What will happen in the next few years? Many businessmen are more confident about 2003 than they have been in a long time.

The top companies in the software services industry are on a hiring spree and so are the winners in IT-enabled services.

The new players in telecom and insurance are pushing forward and rewriting the rules of the game. And, they are proving once and for all that anyone who stands still in Indian industry will be trampled underfoot.

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