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India’s Digitalization: Big Data is the New Oil

Lidia Kulik

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Over the last few years, India has travelled the path of rapid digitalization. Not only has the current crisis failed to stop this process, on the contrary, it has served to accelerate it in many areas and make some trends more evident.

Government efforts, active work of India’s business and joint steps undertaken by India’s public bodies and private entrepreneurs who are equally cognizant of the digital transformation’s significance, difficulties and prospects for India’s economy and society as a whole have advanced the process of shaping India’s new digital realities.

In 2015, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of the Digital India campaign spanning a series of key government initiatives such as increasing the people’s digital literacy, developing infrastructure and creating an e-government. The most significant achievements include completing and putting into operation the Aadhar digital identification system; a single taxation system covering all Indian states that previously had individual taxation rules; and the Reserve Bank of India, jointly with the association of Indian banks, developing and introducing an instant payment system similar to that created by Russia’s Central bank.

Nandan Nilekani, a well-known Indian entrepreneur and public figure, leads the committee on deepening digital payments at the Reserve Bank of India. An engineer by training, together with Narayana Murthy and several other entrepreneurs, Nilekani co-founded Infosys, one of India’s most famous and successful companies working in software development and IT consulting. In 2009, Nilekani left Infosys and wrote several books about India’s development and the way he sees its future: Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation (2009); Rebooting India: Realizing a Billion Aspirations (2015). He also headed the Unique Identification Authority of India, the government body that developed Aadhar, a digital biometric identification system, and introduced it throughout the country; Aadhar has already been mentioned; its importance for India is hard to overestimate. Digitalization has already resulted in tectonic shifts within a very short time-span, no more than 5-7 years, in such areas as India’s e-payments and financial technologies, e-commerce, telemedicine and entertainment. The spread of digital technologies has great significance and potential in such areas as agriculture, education, increasing energy efficiency, regulating employment and the labour market, transportation, logistics and further development of e-government.

Yet, none of that would have been possible had government initiatives not been backed up by the ambitions and strategic approach of another Indian entrepreneur, Mukesh Ambani, who swiftly provided Indians with cheap Internet and accessible smartphones. As he advanced his digital business initiatives, Ambani called upon Narendra Modi’s government to achieve maximum localisation of Indian data in India and spoke about the need to fight a new type of colonialism, the country’s informational enslavement by global corporations, so-called data colonisation. He devoted all his resources to developing a new sovereign digital platform; back in 2016-2017, Ambani already said that data are the new oil and smart data are the new fuel of India’s economy.

Following the sectoral liberalisation at the turn of the 20th-21st century, India created a telecommunication services market characterised by high competition among players (both Indian and international companies) that came to the promising area via partnerships with national bodies holding the requisite licences. By around 2010, most companies working in India saw that their revenues coming from traditional services might potentially drop, so they planned to transition to selling data. None of the many telecommunication companies on India’s market have, however, succeeded in the attempt. The failure stems from several factors, including the policies of the regulator (which decided to change the rules of the game and check the terms and conditions of previously issued licences at a crucial time for the sector) and appearance of a new player with the requisite resources, who was willing to spend them on achieving his large-scale goals. That player was Mukesh Ambani and his company called Jio. The history of Ambani’s family business is an integral and characteristic part of India’s economy, and the development track of his companies, including Jio, is regularly discussed in business media and is the subject of several business cases in the world’s leading schools.

Dhirubhai Ambani, the father of Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani, launched his business empire in 1957 with a small Bombay-based company importing synthetic fibers and exporting spices. In 1977, following its successful IPO, Dhirubhai Ambani’s Reliance Group became synonymous with business success and guaranteed financial investment for many Indians. The company did not confine itself to the textile business and became a diversified holding that also worked in exploring and developing hydrocarbons, in oil processing, petrochemicals, as well as energy, finances, trade and other areas. In fewer than 30 years, Reliance Group became a fixture of Fortune Global 500 and India’s biggest private company, rivalling such famous family holdings as Tata, Birla, Godrej, Mahindra. Dhirubhai Ambani died in 2002, leaving his sons a multibillion fortune. The brothers Anil and Mukesh engaged in a series of high-profile and unrestrained quarrels that resulted in Reliance Group’s assets being split in 2006. The telecommunication company Mukesh Ambani formed in 2002 had to be transferred, among others, to Anil, but Mukesh had the powerful oil processing business left under his control. His company was now called Reliance Industries. Its assets included the famous high-tech complex in Jamnagar (Gujarat State) processing up to 1.4 million barrels of oil a day. 2010 marked an important stage in this story, when the brothers agreed on revising the terms and timeframe for the non-compete agreements, and subsequently, Mukesh had a chance to announce openly his intentions to embark on a qualitatively new approach to the telecommunication business.

It took Mukesh Ambani about six years to create a new company named Jio (Hindi for “live”). It was officially launched in September 2016. Back then, its telecommunication rivals realised that their already difficult situation would become far worse following the emergence of a powerful new player, but hardly anyone could imagine the cardinal and radical changes in store for the sector. India’s normally very active anti-monopoly agency, as well as other supervisory bodies, were prepared to close their eyes to many controversial points, since Ambani’s goals of swiftly spreading accessible Internet coincided with the course for digitalization steered by the government, while his statements that Indians’ data must be kept in India were very appealing for India’s political leadership. As of today, there are only two big players left in India’s telecommunication sector besides Jio, and these two are in a deep financial crisis. India’s government had to bail out both these companies by allowing large-scale foreign investment and by permitting all players to raise the prices for their services slightly, which had, over the last few years, fallen to an unprecedented low (between 2013 and 2017, the cost of 1 GB of data in India fell by 95%).

Today, Reliance Jio is part of the Jio Platforms holding company formed in 2019 as part of Reliance Industries. Mukesh Ambani’s two elder children hold top managerial positions in the family business. His son Akash, a graduate of Brown University, is in charge of strategy in Reliance Jio, while his daughter Isha, who graduated from Yale University, is on the board of directors in Reliance Jio and Reliance Retail.

The infrastructure and entire digital ecosystem of Reliance Jio was created and put into operation in under 2–3 years. The estimated costs of creating Reliance Jio vary between USD 20 and 45 bn., which is approximately the amount of Reliance Industries’ debt increase over the period of creating Jio. At the time of the company’s IPO in 2016, two-thirds of India’s population of over 1.3 bn. had no Internet access. The company set the goals of deploying an efficient 4G network throughout India, including its remotest areas, while securing a large tech margin for future improvements, and of providing its clients with cheap smartphones and access to various contents and services through its own apps. In the first few months of its operations, while the equipment and all systems were being checked, cheap mobile devices under Jio’s own brand were literally handed out to customers free of charge. Later, minimal tariffs were introduced that immediately made India the leader in mobile operator accessibility for both voice services (phone calls were essentially free) and high-speed data transfer. Once sales took off, the company endeavoured to achieve 100 million new clients in the first 100 days, and did not slack off later: in the first two years, Jio had 250 million subscribers, and today it has 388 million. The company plans to reach 500 million users by 2021.

Jio has a large number of apps and services that have quickly become fixtures in the lives of Indians. They include JioTV, JioCinema, JioSaavn (a music service), JioMoney, JioCloud, JioFiber (broadband Internet access service). Jio rather efficiently provided digital functions to the conglomerate’s commercial line: Reliance Retail, which is also the leader in its segment in India. JioMeet, a video call service, is the latest addition to this extensive range of services. Reliance Jio’s contribution to increasing India’s per capita GDP is estimated at 5.65% in 2018.

Internet access is, indeed, changing India’s image and lifestyle before our very eyes. Largely owing to the decisive actions of the Indian businessman Mukesh Ambani, India has, in just a few years, made a qualitative leap in many digitalization-related areas while avoiding many intermediary stages that other countries spent years on. Only Indonesia outstrips India in its digitalization pace. In 2018, only China exceeded India’s number of digital consumers (560 million users). A survey McKinsey conducted in 2019 showed that the pace of data consumption per user in India grew twice as fast as in the US and China, increasing by 152% annually. Various estimates put an Indian user’s average data consumption at up to 9.8 GB of mobile Internet a month (this indicator is 5.5 GB in China, 8–8.5 GB in South Korea, and the 2019 figure in Russia is about the same). The number of Internet users in India was expected to grow by about 40% by 2023, to 750–800 million people, and the number of smartphones is expected to double, reaching 650–700 million (as of 2018, India had 1.2 bn. mobile subscribers). We can be sufficiently confident that new conditions arising from the pandemic will speed up these trends significantly.

The development prospects of India’s digital economy and primarily its consumer segment stimulated an explosive growth of entrepreneurship that also relies on the traditionally strong stratum of Indian IT specialists. In 2017, Indian developers participated in creating over 100 000 apps for the App Store alone, while the total number of such apps is far higher, given that Indian specialists mostly create apps for Android. In the entrepreneurs’ major league, 30 Indian digital high tech companies are unicorns (their capitalisation is over USD 1 bn., and they are still owned by their founders). In 2017, there were ten such companies. The crucial thing is that would-be unicorns in India are also quite numerous: in 2019, there were over 50 potential future champions.

There have always been many difficulties in working on the Indian market. Suffice it to say that, today, the majority of new Internet users in India do not speak English and need interfaces and content in regional languages. The country has 22 such principal languages. WhatsApp, for instance, supports 11 of them. Still, international investors bank on Indian tech companies, which is greatly helped by government bodies constantly working to stimulate the sector’s investment appeal. Companies working in e-commerce, digital payment services, and tourism have long been the leaders in attracting investment among India’s tech startups. A telling recent example of the international capital race for digital India was the USA’s Walmart acquiring Flipkart, one of India’s many digital e-commerce platforms, in May 2018. Walmart had long tried to gain access to India’s offline market, all to no avail, and it finally came to India by buying 77% of Flipkart for USD 16 bn.

Several investment funds of Russian origin are among those making big investments in India. They continue actively selecting new projects for investment and for strategy adjustment, as do other investors.

Companies that appear not to have any tangible assets, not to make any money, and to accrue debt abound not only in developed countries but now in India as well and still continue to increase their investment potential, thus greatly befuddling traditionally-minded financiers. Yet, analysts increasingly have to admit that high-tech digital companies have unique sets of their clients’ big data, which allows these companies to increase their market share and make correct managerial decisions while constantly improving the functions or services they provide.

Big data is becoming more and more important for governments as well. The quality of analytical materials, development of AI technologies and efficiency of modelling processes depend directly on data volume used as learning material; it can be used, among other things, to manage processes and resources in smart homes and cities efficiently. This is the purpose of Smart Cities, one of India’s government programmes. By late 2020, Jio planned to present commercial solutions for the Internet of Things. The company’s technical capabilities make this possible. While the Indian government is only preparing to make the decision on deploying 5G, Mukesh Ambani says that he has already built a new infrastructure capable of working with 6G and he is now striving to make India one of the principal beneficiaries of the 4th industrial revolution. Jio has no rivals in India in its capacity for collecting up-to-date data of Indian consumers and it plans to improve its technologies for their most prompt and precise processing and further use, while simultaneously developing cloud computing, smart devices, blockchain, augmented reality and more.

The current crisis arising from the pandemic is both shaping new consumer habits and bolstering demand for qualitative changes in approaches to the future economic development of many countries. This is also important for Russia, where, despite all the efforts to diversify its economy, there still remains the threat linked to dependency on commodity exports and the high energy intensity of other Russian exports. And it is also important for India, where 80% of its economy depends on imports of coal, oil and gas.

It was previously announced that 20% in Reliance Industries’ petrochemical business would be sold to Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s oil giant, for USD 15 bn. With oil prices falling to record lows, however, in March the deal fell through.

Instead of the Saudi Aramco deal, Jio Platforms finalised three different sales: 9.99% was sold to Facebook for USD 5.7 bn., 2.32% of Jio Platforms is now owned by the Vista Equity Partners investment fund (the stock is worth USD 1.5 bn.), and an additional 1.15% of the company’s stock was purchased by investors at Silver Lake Partners for USD 747 m. Mukesh Ambani still holds 86.54% of the company. Other deals with other investors are likely to follow, which will allow the Indian businessman finally to pay off Reliance Industries’ debt (about USD 8 bn.) by March 2021, without losing control of Jio Platforms, just as he planned.

In their official statements concerning the deals, all the participants, including Mukesh Ambani and Mark Zuckerberg, emphasize their confidence in the promising Indian market and in Jio Platforms’ potential. In full accord with the expectations of the Indian government and regular Indian citizens, they say that the new collaboration does not entail data exchange between partner companies. Jio, Facebook, Vista and Silver Lake also say they intend to use their technologies for the benefit of India’s small and medium-sized businesses by connecting such entrepreneurs more actively to e-commerce platforms. They are talking street trade and the so-called kiranas, typical Indian “neighbourhood” grocery stores; they will be able to find a more efficient digital way to meet their customers’ demand. Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which is very popular in India, is expected to play an important role in this process. If talks with the regulator concerning granting WhatsApp payment-making functions are successful, then, by pooling efforts with JioMart, the company will be able to expand both sellers and buyers’ capabilities significantly and compete with India’s most widespread fintech service PayTM, whose investors include Alibaba Group (the Chinese company owns 40% in PayTM).

India, with its 300 million users, is Facebook’s biggest market. WhatsApp has over 400 million users in India. As for the two other investors in JioPlatforms, Vista Equity Partners is noted for its major presence in India’s tech sector: its Indian companies have over 13,000 employees, while its co-founder Brian Sheth is a native of Gujarat, like Mukesh Ambani and Narendra Modi. Like Vista, Silver Lake is based in Silicon Valley and has already invested over USD 40 bn. in tech companies such as Airbnb, Alibaba, Ant Financial owned by Alphabet Verily and Waymo, and also Dell Technologies and Twitter.

Observers with a lively imagination have long since noticed that the company’s name, Jio, is a mirror image of the word “oil.” It is not known for certain whether this is by its founder’s design, but the events of the last few months and transactions around Jio Platforms confirm that, instead of demand for oil, the world is demonstrating a growing demand for innovations. Consequently, compared to other countries, India has every chance of becoming part of the process and a big-time winner. Russia’s business cooperation with India needs, like never before, to have its current realities supplemented in new formats, be it financial technologies, information security, artificial intelligence, sustainable energy infrastructure, advanced materials or other innovative areas.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History, Head of India Studies at the SKOLKOVO Institute for Emerging Markets, Research Fellow at RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, RIAC Expert

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Geopolitics of 5G and the South Caucasus

Emil Avdaliani

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The age of 5G internet is coming to the South Caucasus. However, as the US-China geopolitical divide looms ever larger, the region enters the global competition where competing visions for 5G’s deployment could hamper the deployment of the new technologies. As a result, Georgia will edge closer to the US, Armenia – to Russia-China telecoms, while Azerbaijan will try to navigate between the two extremes.

A global competition is unfolding between China and the US. So far it has involved economic struggle and some aspects of naval rivalry. A new dimension needs to be addes – technological competition. This is reflected in the race which is underway to deploy next generation 5G mobile networks. In contrast to 3G and 4G (LTE – Long-Term Evolution), where China was largely relegated to the sidelines in the standards-setting process, now it has been heavily involved in the standards process for 5G—a sign of Beijing’s growing ambitions and global influence. 5G will be both quantitatively and qualitatively different from what has come before. For instance, as opposed to the hardware that drives traditional data networks, 5G networks’ primary functions will be software-based.

5G will be fundamentally different from its predecessor, 4G. Initially, vastly higher speeds will not be noticeable as it is likely that 5G will be used by network operators just to boost capacity on existing 4G networks and ensure a consistent service for customers. Ultimately, the speed capacity you get will be contingent upon the spectrum band the operator runs the 5G technology on and how much your carrier has invested in new masts and transmitters.

5G is also groundbreaking as it will usher in an extensive use of artificial intelligence (AI) to manage the network. Its ramifications are wide range: from military to civil spheres. And China has gained a significant advantage as it successfully moves toward commercial-scale deployment of its domestic 5G network in 2020. Consider the following example, in 2019 China’s Huawei signed an agreement with Russian telecoms on development on 5G networks in Russia.

According to some calculations, a full-scale introduction of 5G networks will take more than a decade. The process will be a complex one and the pace of its deployment across Eurasia and specifically in the South Caucasus will depend on a range of different factors such as carrier preferences, government regulatory policies, public and national security concerns, geopolitical alignments and costs of 5G infrastructure itself.

The development of 5G is taking place at the time as the world is becoming divided along economic and increasingly technological lines. The US builds its own bloc where Chinese technologies will have no major role. The same could be said about China. In this bifurcated world, small and techno-economically vulnerable states, which wish to gain access to the advanced technologies, will face tough choices which 5G network technologies to adopt. Small states across Eurasia are likely to face an increasing pressure from the US and its allies to abstain from using China’s 5G model, while Beijing will cushion its 5G offer in large financial benefits (investments, inclusion into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) etc.). Moreover, for small and relatively poor states Chinese technologies are more affordable than any Western competitors.

This brings us to the South Caucasus, which over the past several years has been gradually transformed into the frontline region between the US and China. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia need 5G to boost their economic performance and relative technological backwardness. 

In Armenia’s case, with its booming IT sector, China’s low cost 5G provides a good opportunity to keep apace in the technologically developing world. Since Viva-MTS, a leading mobile operator in Armenia, belongs to the Russian MTS, which in turn partners with Huawei, Armenia is well placed to become one of the first states in the region to successfully deploy 5G technologies. Indeed, work has already begun, as the head of the department of technological development and resource management of telecommunications management of the Public Services Regulatory Commission of Armenia Armen Hunanyan said in one of his statements. 

Armenia is thus more likely to find itself in the middle of the US-China rivalry compared to Georgia or Azerbaijan. The latter two do not have similar Russian (by extension Chinese) influence in telecommunications. In fact, Baku made an interesting move in December 2019 when Ericsson and Azerbaijani communications service provider Azercell signed a three-year 5G Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the joint deployment of 5G projects. As a reminder, Ericsson is one of four companies in the world possessing enough technological prowess to supply the components necessary for building a 5G network. It is notable that US companies are absent from this hi-tech race.

For Georgia 5G will provide a much faster data download and upload speeds as well as much wider coverage from across the globe. With a chance of reaching 1Gbps, as opposed to presently provided 45Mbps, internet operations speed will be about 10-20 times faster. It could also help the country correct its overall technological underdevelopment in the provinces. The Georgian National Communications Commission announced that the introduction of 5G internet in Georgia will begin in 2020, but the pandemic and a general economic slowdown might change the deployment schedule. All in all, presently the telecom company Magti is arguably best poised to become a leader in the emerging industry.

Georgia also hopes that 5G technologies be applied to boost the country’s defence and security capabilities, especially in the light of the ongoing military troubles with Russia. Faster information flow will be crucial for developing more efficient defence capabilities along occupation lines near Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, where Tbilisi faces creeping occupation of lands and an endless string of kidnappings. However, the deployment of 5G might also bear risks as militarily developed states will be better positioned to use the 5G technologies to collect sensitive security and defence information from Georgia’s vital state sectors. On that front, deeper cooperation with US security services and the military sector will be crucial. However, there is a much larger problem Georgia, along with Armenia and Azerbaijan, could face due to the deployment of China-produced 5G. As the US-China divide grows and Washington is increasingly worried that Beijing might use this superiority for military and economic purposes incompatible with Western security practices, US pressure on South Caucasus states is likely to ramp up. Georgia will be under particular scrutiny as it positions itself as an ally of the US in the region and simultaneously seeks closer economic relations with China. In the long run Tbilisi may face the dilemma of having to choose between Washington’s support and the use of China’s technological advancements. 

With Armenia and Azerbaijan, it will be different to a varying degree. Security-wise Armenia is more related to Russia and its telecoms, Azerbaijan not so much. Moreover, as both are not openly aspiring to join Western political or military organizations, harsh US pressure on Yerevan and Baku might be less expected than in the case of Georgia. Still, a certain push from the US for a China-free 5G alternative will follow. It could hamper 5G deployment in the South Caucasus, the development which would once again indicate how global geopolitics is shaping the timing and level of the use of China’s or China-free 5G technologies.

Author’s note: first published in Caucasus Watch

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Global transmission and control of Covid-19

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COVID-19 spreads mainly by droplets produced as a result of coughing or sneezing of a COVID-19 infected person. This can happen in two ways: One can get the infection by being in close contact with COVID-19 patients (within one Metre of the infected person), especially if they do not cover their face when coughing or sneezing. And secondly, the droplets survive on surfaces and clothes for many days. Therefore, touching any such infected surface or cloth and then touching one’s mouth, nose or eyes can transmit the disease. The most important factor in preventing the spread of the Virus locally is to empower the citizens with the right information and taking precautions as per the advisories being issued by Ministry of Health & Family Welfare. Preventive methods of COVID -19 include: Wash your hands often; Wear a face mask; Avoid contact with sick people; Always cover your mouth while sneezing and coughing. Several precautionary measures have to be taken in order to contain the virus because the risk of transmission will certainly increase with the lifting of the lockdown. We must recognise that this virus is going to stay on for some time and we have to make sure that at least for the next one year, we try and keep the virus as slowly moving as possible by physical distancing and other protective measures like masks and handwashing.

Transmission of the virus

We all know that COVID-19 spreads from others who have the virus. A person catches the virus through droplets expelled when someone infected with coronavirus coughs, sneezes or speaks. But, what happens in case of asymptomatic COVID-19 patients? Can they spread the virus? The World Health Organization, in a recently released video, answers similar questions related to COVID-19 transmission. In the context, Dr. Maria van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical lead, says that the majority of transmission that is known till now is that people who have symptoms transmit the virus to other people through infectious droplets. “But, there are a subset of people of don’t develop symptoms. We still don’t have the answer to understand how many people don’t have symptoms,

Concept of Asymptomatic or Pre-symptomatic

Asymptomatic COVID-19 positive means a person has been tested positive but has no symptoms, and does not go on to develop symptoms, says Dr Kerkhove in the video. “A number of people are reported asymptomatic, actually may have mild disease. They may go on to develop symptoms. They may not quite register that they are sick. They can feel just a little bit unwell or under the weather, or fatigued. Some of those individuals we would classify as pre-symptomatic,”  Pre-symptomatic COVID-19 positive means that a person has not yet developed symptoms. Here we need to better understand what proportion is that contributing to transmission. This is one of the major unknowns. Explaining how asymptomatic people can spread the virus, Dr. Mike Ryan, EXD, WHO Health Emergencies Programme says, “For instance, if someone is in a nightclub, trying to talk to someone, and its too noisy, and you are too close to them, it’s like you are projecting your voice at someone. In this situation, if the virus is present your upper respiratory mucosa, then there’s every likelihood that you can project the virus.”Many people with COVID-19 experience only mild symptoms, especially in early stages of the disease. “It is possible to catch COVID-19 from someone who has just a mild cough and does not feel ill. Some reports have indicated that people with no symptoms can transmit the virus.

The current status

In terms of pandemic generation, we are still very much on the upward climb on this mountain, Dr. Ryan adds. “As some countries have shown, if you go at this with a comprehensive approach in a very systematic way, then there is enough stop ability for the virus.”.He also added  that as a society, we have some choices to make. If we can identify cases and their contacts, and we ask those contacts to quarantine themselves, we support them in that quarantine, then that can be a very successful way of both stopping the disease and avoiding large-scale lockdowns in future. Because, if one looks at the spread to people without history of travel or history of contact, certainly there are several such cases, he said. “But most of them are concentrated around the original points of entry of the foreign traveler’s or the travel routes of their contacts. So, these people who are describing it as stage 2 still are saying this is traceable local transmission, it is not unpredictable community transmission.

Therefore, we are avoiding the term community transmission. It is a matter of definitions and language; we need not debate that really. But  it should be recognised that community transmission has occurred in virtually every country which experienced this pandemic in a major form and India should also be prepared for it and act as though it is happening and take all precautionary containment measures. There is not only risk but actually threat of community transmission. According to him, nations in South East Asia, including Malaysia, and India in particular, have kept the COVID-19 death rates per million of the population low compared to countries where the pandemic broke out around the same time. The low death rate in India could be the benefit of multiple factors such as younger age group, more rural population, temperature and climatic conditions as well as the benefits the containment measures which preceded lockdown, and then got much more consolidated with the lockdown. Its quite possible that all of these factors have been helpful and we have seen that benefit. But we need to continue to consolidate that. There are some risk factors, when the lockdown opens there will be much greater mobility of people, there could be more widespread transmission of the virus, so we have to maintain as much as possible physical distancing, continue practices like wearing masks and hand-washing as precautionary measures.

However, these  are going to be difficult in overcrowded areas, especially slum areas. We will have to try and provide as much facilities as possible, particularly for elderly people and to people with co-morbidities, whether they can be provided temporary shelters elsewhere with good social cares. Fortunately, most of the infections are restricted to large cities and areas radiating around them. Referring to return of migrant workers,  care must be taken to see that they themselves will not be victims of the epidemic, and at the same they don’t infect others. But most important thing is to protect the rural areas (from COVID-19) because two-thirds of India is in rural areas, and the transmission of the virus is low there because mobility is low. Evolutionary biology of the virus says that when the movement is greatly restricted and its chances of transmission are greatly reduced, the virus actually can turn into a milder virus.

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Entrepreneur hoping to make electric motorbikes a staple of Thailand’s streets

MD Staff

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Thai entrepreneur Soranun “Earth” Choochut, the founder ETRAN. Photo by ETRAN

Bangkok has an extensive public transit network, but its maze of small side streets—sois—means that a destination is often a hike from a transit stop. In a city of extreme temperatures and monsoon rains, even a short walk in the middle of the day can be very uncomfortable.

The solution for many living in Thailand’s capital are gas-powered mototaxis. This single-passenger mode of transportation can turn a sweaty 20-minute walk into a two-minute ride.

For Soranun “Earth” Choochut, founder and CEO of ETRAN, a sustainable mobility startup, navigating sois can be done just as well with electric vehicles. That’s why ETRAN has developed two models of electric bike, one designed for passengers and one a compact sport bike.

“We want to create a new age of public transportation that’s sustainable, clean and able to improve the quality of people’s lives in cities,” says Choochut.

The over 20 million motorbikes and scooters that whiz around Thailand’s streets and sois produce upwards of 18 million tonnes of greenhouse gases every year. Switching to electric would reduce that to “zero”, says Choochut.

ETRAN’s passenger bike not only provides cleaner transport, it is also helping address gender inequality. It is easy for a man, who is typically wearing pants or shorts, to hop on the back of a mototaxi. Women wearing skirts are forced to ride side-saddle, a more dangerous position. Without an internal combustion engine, ETRAN was able to slide the seat forward and leave a gap in the middle of its PROM model, allowing for a forward-facing sitting position for the passenger no matter the attire.

ETRAN also aims to reduce as much as possible its carbon footprint and plastic consumption.

Choochut’s efforts have received plaudits from the design world, winning the Red Dot design award twice. His environmental ambitions were awarded as well. He was one of the 2020 winners of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Asia Pacific Low Carbon Lifestyles Challenge.

With 3,000 units sold, ambitions to scale to 10,000 over the next two years, and partnerships with the likes of PTT Group and Bosch, Choochut wants to make sustainable transport a Thai economic success story.

“ETRAN can be the aspiration for others that proves that Thailand can invent something and scale like other countries and create passion and movement among entrepreneurs to create something bigger than themselves,” says Choochut.

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