Drama Mask Delusions

Majority of Americans want Congress to move on from health-care reform: Reuters/Ipsos poll

Majority of Americans want Congress to move on from health-care reform: Reuters/Ipsos poll

 

Majority of Americans want Congress to move on from health-care reform: Reuters/Ipsos poll

Most Americans are ready to move to health care reform right now, after the efforts of the United States Senate to dismantle Obamacare failed on Friday, according to an exclusive Reuters / Ipsos poll published on Saturday .

Nearly two-thirds of the country wants to maintain or change the affordable protection law, popularly known as Obamacare, and a majority of Americans want Congress to draw attention to other priorities, the survey found.

Republicans have pledged to dismantle the affordable protection law since Democratic President Barack Obama signed in 2010, and it seemed they finally got their chance when Republican President Donald Trump took office in January. But the law, which has helped 20 million people to get health insurance is becoming increasingly popular.

The July 28-29 poll of 1,130 Americans, conducted after the Senate Republican-led effort fell, found that 64% said they wanted to keep Obamacare or “since” or after repair Of “problem areas”. This increased from 54% in January.

The poll found that support for the law always stretched along party lines, with Democrats nine out of 10 Republicans and only three out of ten saying they wanted to keep or change Obamacare.

Among Republicans, three-quarters said they would like the leaders of their party are trying to repeal and replace Obamacare at some point, though most of the other problems they attribute to giving a higher priority at the moment.

Disappointment among Republicans and happiness among Democrats over the failure of repeal were palpable. Two-thirds of Republicans felt “bad” that the Senate failed to pass a health care bill, while three-quarters of Democrats considered it “good,” according to the Reuters / Ipsos poll.

When asked what they think about what Congress should do next, most Americans have chosen other priorities such as tax reform, foreign relations, and infrastructure. Only 29 percent said they wanted Republicans in Congress to continue working on a new health care bill.

Gene Anderson, 81, a Trump voter living in a retirement community in Zionsville, Indiana, said the president should “re-focus on a certain stability in his administration and a demonstration of working with the Democrats for Congress.”

“I do not understand why they should push for health care reform before the tax reform,” he said. “They have to sit down and propose a legislative and feasible tax reform.”

Americans seem to be more supportive of some of Obamacare’s key features. For example, 77 p. 100 said they supported the expansion of Medicaid in low-income families and 43 percent. 100 said they supported the requirement for US residents to have health insurance. This rose by 66 percent and 36 percent, respectively, when Reuters / Ipsos asked these questions for the first time in April 2012.

Scientists Will Soar for Total Solar Eclipse Study of the Sun and Mercury

Scientists Will Soar for Total Solar Eclipse Study of the Sun and Mercury

Scientists Will Soar for Total Solar Eclipse Study of the Sun and Mercury

Amir Caspi, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and his team is going to climb 50,000 feet in Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee on airplanes equipped with high-tech telescopes.

At this altitude telescopes mounted on the nose of the plane will be able to capture a clear view of the outer layer of the Sun’s atmosphere, or crown; They can also capture thermal images of Mercury, a planet normally obscured by bright sunlight, according to a NASA statement.

“At the cruising altitude of the aircraft 50,000 feet, the sky is 20-30 times darker than seen from the ground, and there is much less atmospheric turbulence, allowing structures and movements of the sun’s thin crown to Be visible “. NASA officials said in the statement.

Researchers are interested in getting a closer view of the crown so they can better understand the structure of the outer layers of the sun.

For example, the crown can reach maximum temperatures, hundreds of times greater than the surface of the sun. One possible explanation for this is that small flashes of bright light called “nanoflares” release heat inside the crown.

The study of this situation is difficult because these solar flares are too small to be detected individually, but “high-resolution, high-speed images to be taken from the WB-57F jets could reveal [nanoflare effects] in the Crown “according to the statement.

Using high-resolution images captured during the total solar eclipse, scientists study the corona to a phenomenon called Alfvén waves, which can occur in a plasma (a gas in which electrons have been separated from their parent atoms) in A magnetic field.

Scientists will examine whether the waves move to or away from the surface of the Sun and measure the strength and size of the waves.
“We see evidence of heating” nanoflare “but we do not know where they occur,” Caspi said in the statement.

“If they occur higher up in the crown, you can expect to see the waves move down, such as small bursts and reconfigure the magnetic fields collectively. [Where to view the total solar eclipse in 2017 state by state]

Scientists also plan to use high-tech telescopes aboard the WB-57F aircraft to study temperature changes on Mercury’s surface, which can be between 800 degrees Fahrenheit (427 degrees Celsius) and 290 degrees Fahrenheit C less) at night.

This information can be used to determine what the planet’s soil and its density, which will give an overview of how they formed Mercury and other rocky planets, said NASA officials in the press.

If everything goes according to plan, scientists capture thermal images of mercury half an hour before and after the moon completely covers the sun when the sky is still relatively dark.

Sparklers within reach

 

Enough was enough, felt Mon­ika Sood, who had her own apparel export firm, which she had started in 1996. “As a customer, I was feeling the pain of not being able to find trendy fashion jewellery and accessories in the Indian mar­ket,” she says. “Well-known brands like Accessorize and Aldo, which were of high fashion and good qual­ity, were expensive. And street ven­dors only had products that were low fashion, bad quality and cheap.” The postgraduate in fashion design from International Institute of Fashion Technology, Delhi, had come to rea­lise that there was a clear space for trendy, affordable fashion jewellery and accessories, to be made available in high footfall areas.

So, she and her husband Ashish, who is an MBA from Switzerland’s International Institute of Manage­ment Development, decided to take the plunge and start an enterprise of their own. “We wanted to tap the potential of the fashion accessories category, which is the top specialty retail opportunity available in the country, with a market size of over $2 billion and an annual growth of 30 per cent,” says Ashish Sood. “And, ‘Youshine’ was the result”.

Modern retail was just hitting
20 per cent throughout the country during 2014-18.

And driving the ?15,000 crore market is the fashion-conscious Indian woman, with a large dispos­able income. What was earlier run by small manufacturers is now being dominated by organised players – who target the young women and fashion professionals in the 18-35 year age bracket. India has seen a major emergence of multiple brands since 2012, with specialty shops pres­ent in big cities, as well as Tier II and Tier III cities. And, they have been fuelled by DTH, Internet and smart, phones, which have helped spread the word and ensure growth.

“It’s an interesting business to be in,” Monika admits. “Through Youshine, we offer the highest quality of contemporary and affordable fashion jewellery and accessories to the Indian pub­lic. They are trendy and fashion­able, ranging from ear-rings (for men too) and ear-cuffs, to chok­ers, necklaces, cocktail rings, brace­lets, anklets and a wide assortment of fashion aids, such as hair accesso­ries, handbags, clutches, scarves, leg­gings, sunglasses and caps.”

Hard decision

Realising the huge potential of the venture they were embarking on, Monika started the business with ?5 lakh from her own resources. In the same year, her husband and she invested an additional ?25 lakh from their personal savings to supplement the efforts. But they knew they had a winner here and did not hesitate to sell some real estate they owned and invest ?50 lakh more to fund fur­ther growth. “It was a hard decision, especially because we had a family to look after as well,” says Monika.

“We decided to take the plunge since we had faith in the Youshine story and in ourselves. So, in late 2011, my husband sent out an e-mail to his MBA classmates, hoping to ‘crowd fund’ the business. He received a favourable response, and, by Febru­ary 2012, two of his classmates had decided to come in with $310,000 as angel investors in Youshine. Since then, we have self-invested and also

have received further investments from our angels to the tune of over $1 million. We’re now planning to* raise institutional funding in the next six months or so.”

Youshine has kept on going, as the duo knew they had a good market in the young cosmopolitan Indian women, between the age group of 18-32 years which, according to RNCOS, is the youngest population in the world – 400 million-strong and, more importantly, tech-savvy and in tune with international designs. So, their marketing was hybrid too, an omni-channel, ranging from digital marketing, print advertising and loy­alty programmes, which offer instant cash gratification for purchases made by their customers, whether offline or online.

But the main focus was social media, because, “We realised that the target audience was Internet-friendly, relying on digital content 20 hours a day.” says Ashish. “And so, our design team is continuously following the fashion trends and adapting them to cater- to our clients. We have a robust design-to-procurement-to- market launch process in place, which ensures five new products launched on a daily basis across jewellery and accessories. As a result, our customers find something new every time they walk into a Youshine store or shop online from our portal.”

The couple had started offline since, at that time, online was not so big in India. However, they warmed up to online as well, when e-com­merce started to gain popularity. They still believe there is value in both offline and online and they are committed to both retail formats.

Currently, Youshine offline has 15 brick-and-mortar stalls in the best malls of India, such as Select City- walk, The Great India Place, Phoe­nix Marketcity, Elante Mall, Spark Mall and vr Mall, as also stores, in Delhi-NCR, Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune, Chandigarh, etc, which con­tribute 65 per cent of their revenue, while its online activities contrib­ute the balance 35 per cent. However, this figure is changing rapidly and they expect a 50-50 contribution by 2016. But Youshine’s biggest bet is the
e-commerce market, where it partners with Myntra, Jabong, Koovs, Lim- eroad, Amazon, Flipkart, Snapdeal and others.

Appropriate marketing

“Unlike traditional jewellery, which follows a certain pattern, here, you get to experiment, which is what the young generation likes,” says Wendell Rodericks, a fashion designer. Such activities have pushed Youshine’s turnover from ?2 crore in 2012-13 to ?3.5 crore in 2013-14. The Soods expect it to touch ?6.5 crore in 2014-15. Both are gung-ho about their progress and hope that, “we will become the No: 1 Indian brand in fashion jewellery and accessories by 2018. We will be 100 point of sales by then across India and the biggest online partner with India’s top 10 e-commerce market­places with revenue of U00 crore.”

“This success is due to Youshine being a purely mall concept,” contin­ues Ashish. “So far, our target audi­ence has been those who frequent malls for movies, food, shopping and to enjoy the temperature-con­trolled environment. We are care­ful about which malls we are present in, where our stores are located, as also our design and execution. Mall rentals being high, we go for small stores and optimise the space to gen­erate the highest per sq ft revenues – so much so that our stores break even within 12 months of beginning the operation.”

Starting with Delhi-NCR, the duo
has expanded to Bangalore, Mumbai and Pune. In 2014, they opened their first Tier II store in Chandigarh, fol­lowed by Surat, where the response was excellent and helped attain the break-even quicker, because of lower rentals. And, while they are nurtur­ing their Tier I footprint, they are also aggressively pursuing Tier II cit­ies across the country and looking at Tier III as well.

“Their marketing is appropriate, because a mall is considered a leisure zone,” endorses H.R. Srivatsa, profes­sor, marketing, T.A. Pai Management Institute. “In locations such as these, you are sure to get the customer.”

The company’s plans are to focus on saturating the Indian market by 2018. Thereafter, it will go in for an over­seas expansion, starting with South East Asia and moving on to Africa and South America, while also expanding the product range. “It’s always good to let locals drive the business in their respective regions; but, we will con­sider partnerships when we go over­seas,” says Monica. “Everything we sell today has the Youshine label. We may extend this to other categories, as we go along. We are targeting a 100 points of sale pan-India by 2018 and 1,000 points of sale in India, Asia, Africa and South America by 2021. We will stick to our core of fashion jewellery and accessories, but will go deeper into these categories, as there is enough for us to do here.”

♦ ROBIN ABREU feedback@businessindiagroup.com

 

A unique profile

 

In healthcare, genetics has always been an interesting area, because it can give an early indication of several disorders, which have not yet manifested in the human body. Such disorders can be prevented, if detected at an early stage. “How­ever, genetics was classically ignored as an area of business because of lack of computing facilities (it’s all data)”, explains Abhimanyu Kumar and Susheel Singh, co-founders, Preven­tiNe, Mumbai, a company promoted by the two batchmates at HM-Cal- cutta, class: 2005. After their studies, Kumar and Singh went for a short stint with commercial and invest­ment banks like ABN-AMRO, Standard Chartered and JP Morgan Stanley (M&A), before starting their own venture in 2008.

“We wanted to do something unique. So, for over 18 months, we scanned the genetic and biotech hori­zon and looked for something where medicine is married into technol­ogy. We hit on the use of algorithms that can automate analysis. Preven­tiNe has a unique profile that falls somewhere midway between med­icine and software and has experts converging from the medical frater­nity (such as MBBS, MDs), research (Ph Ds), engineering (software) and laboratory technicians (with mas­ters degree), which looks at product development from the perspective of its market potential,” says Kumar who, together with Singh, has roped in K. Kumuda of Kumuda Infrastruc­ture as an angel investor. Through three rounds of funding, Kumuda has pumped in ?4.5 crore into the company till date.

Also, for scientific counselling, the company has James Shoemaker, professor & head, Edward A. Doisy department of biochemical genetics, St. Louis University School of Med­icine, US (the inventor of ‘One Step Metabolomics’, with an experience
of over 30 years in biochemical genetics) and Domingo Gonzalez-La- muno, professor, University Hospi­tal’s Marques de Valdecilla and head, Spanish Federation of Rare Diseases.

“The important factor was the profiles of promoters. They sounded clear in their vision about this space and seemed to be having the right resilience and energy for executing their plan. Today, we see that they have converted most of what they had in their plan. Although bio-tech- nology and genetics sounded new at that time, we could foresee that some good business can be made in this field after the information tech­nology revolution, which India saw several years back,” explains Reddy of Kumuda Infra, an infrastructure company with interests in turnkey projects, social welfare infra proj­ects, railways and mining, based in Chennai and Hyderabad.

Hidden disorders

“We have developed a proprietary technology, which tests a newborn baby for over one hundred genetic disorders at the time of birth. “These disorders are ‘hidden’ and manifest later in life, mostly after crossing the ‘reversible stage’. The only way to safeguard the baby is to test it soon after birth and prevent the disorder from manifesting,” says Singh, who rolled out the company’s first offer­ing called ‘Newborn Screening’ in 2009. Receiving 400-odd samples daily from across the world, the com­pany has grown to a ?18 crore outfit, with an operating margin of close to 50 per cent.

“After the completion of Human Genome project, it has become pos­sible to analyse the DNA of a person and figure out the mutations, which are the root cause of diseases that may or may not yet be apparent, but may manifest later in life,” explains Kumar. “The fraternity believes, more
so through the past decade that, one day, such preventive genetic tests are going to be available in the super­stores. People will buy these tests themselves and learn about their risk disposition to various diseases and take precautionary measures (med­ications, change in lifestyle, etc) in order to avert the disease or at least reduce its impact. One such mega company working in this area is 23 and Me (funded by Google). There are several others which have been trying to build a sizeable business in this,” he adds. “However, there is a fundamental problem with this class of genetic tests. This category of genetic tests gives ‘Probabilistic Results’. We are offering services in the area of high-end medical and lifestyle testing. The focus has been primarily in the area of genetics and more specifically in the area of metabolomics”.

Singh believes in the potential of wellness and do-it-yourself tests, but does not at this stage believe in tests that give probabilistic results for disorders. “Hence, we chose to work in a sub-area of genetics called metabolomics. In simple words, it deals with ‘metabolism’ of human beings. Metabolism is about ‘what is’, whereas genetics is about ‘what can be’. We have introduced a series of tests, which are deterministic and address health problems faced by a large class of population. They are affordable enough to be taken by large number of people and, above all, can also be picked directly by consumers, in addition to be routed through clinicians,” says Kumar, looking at building the company the way Thyrocare has occupied the mind space in thyroid. Similarly, the duo would like PreventiNe to serve the field of metabolism.

Today, “more people are becom­ing conscious about maintaining health and preventing diseases, than to suffer from it and then initiate a treatment. The boom with well­ness industry, reflective in growing chains of gymnasiums, skin clin­ics, eye clinics, weight clinics, health supplements and similar are indica­tive of the component of income that
people are now reserving for a better quality of body.

The growth in customer’s use of Internet for information and deci­sion-making is propelling selection of health diets and vitamins, without the interface of a health practitioner. The health activities, health tonics and supplements have found their space in customer’s direct decision making. Even basic wellness tests are being availed directly by consumers. Now is the turn of high-end ‘health tests’. Companies like PreventiNe, can do well in this market,” says Pri- yanka Kartari, a Mumbai-based clin­ical psychologist.

Global model

“In my last visit to India, I had an opportunity to visit PreventiNe in Mumbai and see how samples are processed and analysis done. In my view, PreventiNe’s technology and approach to genetic screening will be the benchmark of how genetic screening shall be done in the US and worldwide in the next few years”, observes Edward Karotkin, former
chairman, Newborn Screening pro­gramme, East Virginia, US.

Simultaneously, PreventiNe has also designed a globally scalable model. The problems with several laboratories across countries, which do newborn screening, is that they do not have the higher technology and have to send the second sample to the US for confirmation, paying over $1,000-1,500 and waiting for over four weeks for results. “Preven­tiNe has designed a model, wherein we could establish our technology in any laboratory in any country – get the sample processed in the equip­ment installed there, the data thrown by equipment on running the urine sample in the equipment is uploaded on dedicated secured server, that is downloaded and run through UTICA at PreventiNe central laboratory (Navi Mumbai), authenticated by MDs, uploaded back for the partner laboratory for communication to the hospital/doctor – in any lan­guage of choice. The test now costs about $80-100 and has a turnaround time of just 24-48 hours, based on the time difference from India,” explains Kumar.

Today, PreventiNe has five sam­ple processing centres worldwide – one in India (owned), one in Spain (partly owned), and one each in Aus­tria, Chile and Mexico (in collabora­tion). Samples from over 10 developed countries are being processed in the various laboratories on PreventiNe’s technology. Till date, PreventiNe has detected over 2,000 cases positive for genetic metabolic disorders. The advantage of being based in India gives access to a large pool of genet­ically diverse population; with com­monly found disorders which are otherwise considered very rare.

In the coming 18 months, the duo plans to ramp up the operations in India across 36 cities and enter the retail market with outlets. “Before we enter the next phase of growth, we need at least $8-10 mil­lion, and are looking at private equity as well as strategic investors,” sums up the duo.

♦ LANCELOT JOSEPH feedback@businessindiagroup.com

Facing a challenge

 

The College of Agricultural Sci­ences, Dharwad was founded nearly 70 years agobyrenowned scientist S.W. Nlenshinkai on the out­skirts of Dharwad in Karnataka. How­ever it took another four decades to become a full fledged university, UAS Dharwad (UASD). One of the lead­ing institutions in India which has engaged in high quality research, teaching and extension among farm­ers, todav the institution faces new challenges. To date it has released over 200 new varieties of crops.

Dr D.P. Biradar, a plant biotech­nology is the new vice-chancel­lor. He is not the one to sit on past laurels. He wants it to be a globally known institution that serves the needs of local farmers. “Post indepen­dence Indian agriculture was tradi­tional and was subsistence in nature, which was unable to meet the food demand of a fast growing popula­tion. Indian agriculture today has to work towards achieving nutritional security,” says Biradar. Technologi­cal intervention is the only option to achieve both national food and nutri­tional security. The area under arable land in India is not increasing and is currently hovering around 140-145 m ha. Therefore, growing not only high yielding crop cultivars, but also of better quality is important. A good example here is of Bt cotton.

hybrids but along with them we are also developing Bt cotton varieties suited to high density cultivation,” adds Biradar. Unlike Bt hybrids, when Bt varieties are released, the seeds can be reused by farmers – helping them

  • in the long-run. “Our varieties are
  • well adapted to the local environment ; including limited water environments ; both rain fed and dry land.”

Dryland is another major area where new technological interven­tions are required to adapt to abiotic stress (hot and dry climates). This includes drought tolerant crop culti­vars with the introduction of drought resistant genes, rain-water harvesting, soil conservation and mechanisa­tion that is suited to small hold­ings of Indian farmers. Here, there is greater collaborative opportu­nity for UASD to work with engi­neering colleges. The collaboration between plant biologists and engi­neers would address the problems related to labour scarcity, mechanised cultivation and harvesting of agricul­tural crops.

UASD has quite a few MoUs with outside institutions such as Texas A&M, Cornell University, USA; McGill and University of Manitoba, Canada; and many others including some Afri­can institutions. It has established an International Centre for Agricultural Development in Dharwad and has identified six themes for research with global partners. “We are now looking to develop collaborations with Asian and African partners. In fact, we now have an MoU with China and LUA- NAR, Malawi. In fact, we have been attracting students from Africa and the Middle East regularly.”

One of the issues facing UASD is the lack of agriculture graduates going back to farming. While the government has recently started a two year diploma course in agriculture, the numbers remain low. “We are encouraging our graduates to work closely with their farming families. I think both agri­culture graduates and diploma hold­ers need to be provided with a credit linkage by the banks so that they are encouraged to take up farming or agri­culture-related enterprise.”

♦ SHIVANAND KANAVI feedback@businessindiagroup.com

 

Out on a limb

John Pierpont Morgan, the leg­endary US banker and co-founder of jPMorgan Chase, who used his luence to stabilise the US finan­cial markets during the crisis of 1907, would have been horrified to hear Ajay Shetty, CEO, Myra Vineyards, saying that he left the cushy job at Merrill Lynch to start his own win­ery. “I found banking too mundane,” was Shetty’s explanation.

At the same time, Pierpont would have admired Shetty’s chutzpah too. “Well, no jobs are cushy,” Shetty had asserted. “I would say so, because every job needs commitment, ded­ication and focus and I had given that fully to my banking job as well. And, during my banking days, I had travelled to several countries, which exposed me to different cultures, people and cuisines and, not to miss, wines too. I wanted to do something more gratifying – something in the area of agri-business – and wine was a good option, given my passion, as also the gastronomical metamorpho­sis our country is going through. My love for food and wine gave me the confidence to enter this industry.”

However, Shetty’s Merrill Lynch background did give him an under­standing of India’s consumer base, especially regarding the new set of wine consumers. According to Euromonitor International, the Indian wine industry is looking bright and has been growing at 25

sensing growth

per cent. The present wine consumption in the coun­try is confined to key markets such as Mumbai (37 per cent), New Delhi (25 per cent), Goa and Banga­lore (9 per cent each), with the total volume consumed annually touch­ing 21 million litres.

What is adding to the volume growth of wine in India are the compa­nies and wine boards in Karnataka and Maharashtra, which have been taking various measures to promote the wine drinking culture, with tasting sessions, courses, accessories and tours, which eventually helped increase awareness and push wine sales.

So, Shetty took a gamble, investing ?6 crore from his own finances to set up a winery at Sriramapura, Bangalore, where the wines are made, bottled and distributed within Maharash­tra. He also set up another winery in Bijapur, Karnataka, where a total of 20-25 people are involved at dif­ferent stages from making wines to bottling to packaging. Working with four farmers – two from Maharash­tra and two from Karnataka – to ensure that the company supplies the best quality wines to the respec­tive states, Myra Wines is currently working on 100 acres of land and has a capacity to produce about 100,000 litres from these two states. “I don’t want to lie by saying I was not
worried or afraid to start my own business,” says Shetty. “But I sensed a great growth in the coming years, considering that new domestic and international brands are now being launched.”

With four brands – Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc (white), Shi­raz and Cabernet Sauvignon (red) – in three categories (high-end super premium, premium and entry level), Shetty is planning to introduce a cou­ple more brands in the next financial year. Myra launched two categories this year – Reserve in the super-pre­mium segment and two-headed bird at the entry level segment.

While Shetty intends to con­tinue to work with the farm­ers in Maharashtra more for logistics and taxation policy reasons within the state, his long-term aim is to build Karna­taka as a wine tourism destination, a la Yarra Valley, Australia, which indulges in life’s great pleasures – food, wine, scenery and inspiring arts – and imparts a lifetime of experience. Shetty would like to bring in a similar concept to his vineyards too.

What has caught his attention is that the country is witnessing a boom in wine tourism, as travel­ling to a vineyard is the best expe­rience one could have. “Maharastra and Karnataka are the two states that have maximum vineyards, which promote India as a wine tourism des­tination,” says Shetty. “My intention is to bring a similar concept to my vineyards also, matching the inter­national standards that could give our consumers an unforgettable and lifetime wine tour experience.”

Now this 18-month-old company, which expanded rapidly in Banga­lore, Mumbai, Pune and Goa, will extend to New Delhi and Pondich­erry too, by end of this financial year. It has plans to export wine to South East Asia in the near future.

“It is indeed challenging to market wine brands, in a non-wine-drink- ing country like India, with compli­cated tax policies in every state,” says Shetty. “And, for me, things just do not stop here.”

♦ ROBIN ABREU robin.abreu&businessindiagroup.com

 

The ‘hashtag’ revolution

 

Net neutrality, Apps licensing and the net debate catch the attention of India

Two fluttering wings created the tsunami – an innocuous looking consultation note from the TRAI and the launch of a seem­ingly well-intentioned service from an operator seeking to make a bundle of free Internet ser­vices available to a population segment that had thus far stayed away from joining the Internet bandwagon. And suddenly a furore has ema­nated on the Internet, starting with a few well- meaning netizens, spreading to the All India Bakchod aibi and getting lakhs of people in a frenzy as hashtag activism’ threatened to create a new revolution without a single angry footstep physically hitting the streets of the country.

The first public fallout of the ‘net neutrality’ indignation in the country was the announce­ment of Fiipkart that it would withdraw from Air- tel Zero which would have meant apps licence fees pain to the carrier by the company to enable subscribers of the service to have free access. What this revealed to the world, which had hither:  not taken that much notice, was that

Facebook too had been marketing Mark Zuck- erber; s pet project – Internet.org, fairly aggres­sively in India. Launched in February with the support of Reliance Communications, the proj­ect offers basic Internet services to the under­serve a who could not afford the cost of access earlier. Once the Apps Licensing issue surfaced and the net neutrality doubts surfaced, partners like Cleartrip and NDTV hastened to withdraw from the platform, while the Times group has been in wait and watch’ mode.

Interestingly Zuckerberg himself has jumped to the defence of the platform, suggesting that “net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two princi­ples – universal connectivity and net neutrality – can and must co-exist”. The real point of course is contained later in the same note where Zucker­berg argues: “Mobile operators spend tens of bil­lions of dollars to support all of Internet traffic. If it was all free, they’d go out of business. But, by offering some basic services, it’s still affordable and it’s valuable and free for everyone to use.” This column does not support one view or the other, because every argument in favour of free apps and against walled gardens on the Internet can be countered by the need to have basic Inter­net services in education, skills, healthcare, jobs and governance free to every citizen of the planet. Large scale government initiatives like the Digital

Shaksharta Abhiyan (National Digital Literacy Mission) will certainly be served better, if the hun­dreds of millions of digitally literate citizens have access to a nation-wide broadband network.

Social inclusion and the bridging of the digi­tal divide are a must and comparisons between fully connected communities of the Western world and the aspirational netizens of the emerg­ing world are naturally odious. If only the pol­icy-makers can make it viable for the operators to open their portals to all, while ensuring that there is a level playing field for all apps developers and creators of content for the vast user commu­nity out there, all interest would be best served.

Are there precedents that can be followed as we move towards such an equitable and harmo­nious policy for India? In the US, the argument has raged on with the pro-neutrality faction arguing that Internet services are no different from phone services and the latter has never been allowed to slow down a connection if they did not approve or get a premium from certain categories of users. The anti-neutrality faction have argued that data doggers like Netflix and YouTube, with exabytes of software, music and videos and the creators of free phone call, have all built these services on networks that cost governments and operators billions to build and serve, so why should they not pay a premium?

Arguments for innovation and freedom of speech have been routinely heard on the web waves and even in courts such as the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled against the Federal Communications Commis­sion 2010 net neutrality rules. The recent moves of the FCC may well provide guideposts to the powers-that-be in our country, with its positive ideas against all forms of discrimination, includ­ing blocking, throttling or paid prioritization by any broadband provider. Special disclosure norms for data limits, fees, network manage­ment practices, promotional rates and surcharges by operators may make it more complicated for users but will ensure that a visible level playing field is available to all.

We are still watching the first act in India. The battle today may be restricted to cyber­space, the outcome of this protest will have far reaching ramifications on the nature of debate and criticism of policies and practices in the years to come. And, it should be welcomed! ♦

feedback@businessindiagroup.com

 

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