Musings from India

I just spent 10 days in India across Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi, where I also attended TiEcon. It was an exciting, fun and productive trip – I met with entrepreneurs, budding entrepreneurs, investors, and investment bankers.

While I was in India for only 10 days, the overall mood changed quite a bit during that period. The change was (I think) mostly driven by the fact that the stock market dropped by 20%, and the SENSEX dropped below 9000 from a peak of 21000 at the start of the year. In a country where even the cab drivers wager money in the stock markets, that changes the overall mood quite a bit. The newspapers were echoing the same themes as in the US, the credit crunch, the collapse of the stock market, money market funds being under water, etc. The bad press coupled with SMS based rumor mongering about banks failing (which is a uniquely Indian phenomena) had created a panic like situation amongst the middle class, driving huge redemptions of mutual funds (in line with the “buy high and sell low” philosophy), and a run on several private banks including ICICI, which was the darling of the stock market till recently. Yet, the very same newspapers talked about how the economy would grow as 6-7 % for the next 2 years instead of 7-9 %. And everyone talked about how the worst case scenario for India is 5.5 % growth next year. Seems like a disconnect to me!
The overall air travel experience was significantly better than recent times. The privatization of the airports is paying off. The new Bangalore airport is very nice and seems quite spacious while both Delhi and Mumbai are a step up though the continue to be relatively small, and in comparison to Shanghai feel tiny. I also tried the recently launched Jet Airways SFO-Shanghai-Mumbai flight which was quite a treat: good food, great service, even landed 15-30 mins. early! Prior to taking the flight, I was quite skeptical about the market opportunity for Indian airlines seeking to build a global business. After all, why does the world need another airlines! Post the flight, I am a convert. And then, both Jet and Kingfisher (another India airlines) canceled their SFO flights and so I am back to flying in Lufthansa.
The traffic keeps getting worse. Mumbai is virtually impossible to move around in it, taking 2.5-3.5 hours in the evening to drive from South Mumbai to Bandra, which is a less than 10 miles. The new Bangalore airport takes several hours to get to from most parts of the city and Delhi traffic has taken a turn for the worse, especially wherever there is metro construction underway, which is most of South Delhi.
Health consciousness on the rise. At Gold’s gym in Bandra (a well to do and fashionable neighborhood), I saw the usual suspects – incredibly good looking young men and women pumping iron, and the occasional westerner (Bandra is the hub for expats living in Mumbai). What was a pleasant surprise though was that I also saw several middle class housewives pounding away on the elliptical, and boxing with their trainers.That was a first for me! In addition, a couple of restaurants had low calorie meals and quite a few people I met seemed to be running in the upcoming Delhi half marathon.
Having your cake and eating it too. The day I landed, Jet Airway announced that it was laying off 850 flight attendants to reduce its bleeding, and there was an uproar. Local politicians threatened to prevent Jet flights from taking off in protest, the media was full of crying air hostesses, and several ministers came to the rescue. Within 24 hours, Jet re-hired then all back. Ministers publicly warned Jet and Kingfisher not to lay off employees or be prepared to face the consequences. We (Indians) want the benefits of capitalism, but are we willing to live with the consequences ?
All in all, the energy of India continues to be intoxicating. As a friend said one evening, “growth is a drug like cocaine, once you are addicted you need more and more and…”And it was clear that everyone is still on a high…

About Ashu

General Partner with Foundation Capital. Areas of interest range from digital media, mobile and internet infrastructure to all things related to India. Currently on the board of TreeHouse, Aspire, Conviva, Agni and TubeMogul.
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