India’s Innovation Front Lines, Part 6: Return to Pune, the Boston of India
Pune, Monday, December 22—I visited the cerebral city of Pune, 120 miles southeast of Bombay (Mumbai), on the Deccan plateau. Pune is the closest parallel city to Boston, with a multitude of universities and government research labs. I attended high school in Pune over 30 years ago. The city was unrecognizable, with huge population and industrial growth. While no Detroit, the automobile industry has a big presence in Pune. It is the headquarters of Bajaj, the largest worldwide manufacturer of two-wheelers (scooters and motorcycles), and three-wheelers (those ubiquitous yellow-black auto rickshaws that Hollywood sees as a caricature of India). Tata Motors builds trucks, buses, and now cars in Pune. My father had brought us to Pune, called Poona in those days, to help launch the Tata Motors truck plant in 1970. Pune has also become a growing IT hub of product development outsourcing.
I thought I might escape the crushing traffic jams of Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore while I was in Pune; I was mistaken. If there is a symbol of modern India, it is that of honking cars and two-wheelers crawling along at walking pace. The three-lane toll expressway from Mumbai to Pune was just like the Mass Turnpike; we were cruising at 70 miles per hour. However, it took two hours getting out of Mumbai and two hours to get into Pune, covering about 10 miles in each case. India’s transportation infrastructure cannot keep up with the growth of vehicles on the road. Most of the vehicles in India are in the four metropolitan cities, with Delhi alone adding about 1,000 new vehicles per month. India cannot emulate the U.S. and depend on roads alone for transportation; it has to build a public rail transport system in cities.
The intercity railway network is the largest in the world, with over 2 billion passengers transported quarterly. I have decided to take an 18-hour train journey from Mumbai to Delhi in first class sleeper. I booked the trip online at the Indian Railways website in just a few minutes. The Indian Railways is one of the few government departments that has improved service for the public in the past few years. The Railway minister in Parliament is the erstwhile Lalu Prasad, a breathtakingly dishonest politician who as the Chief Minister of Bihar brought that state to terminal economic decline. In true American style, he has reinvented himself as a competent federal minister, earning a case study at Harvard Business School.
Bangalore’s new airport was delightfully efficient and clean ,and I have heard that the new airport in Hyderabad, the life sciences capital of India, is even better. Air travel is cheap and generally a delightful experience within India. Railway station and airports will soon be connected to urban public transport. Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai are all building a metro system, with Delhi clearly in the lead.
The electricity grid in India is notoriously unreliable. Most of the problem is due to demand outstripping supply. It is also due to the enormous leakage of power, ie power that is stolen with the complicity of corrupt municipal officials. As a result, there is a huge industry of distributed backup power; every house and office has battery backup, UPSs, and diesel generators. The noise and air pollution from these backup generators can be experienced at any retail marketplace. With the nuclear cooperation agreement signed with the U.S. (and France and Russia), India is embarking on construction of a dozen or so nuclear reactors. India is going to buy this reactor technology from these countries, and there are billions of dollars of business up for grabs. From what I have heard, U.S. companies are in third place.
India’s biggest infrastructure challenge is that of clean water. Most of the country receives rain only during a 2-month-long monsoon season. The rest of the year water is available from the ground or glacier-fed rivers. Municipal water is generally contaminated and available for only a few hours a day. Most people augment municipal water by buying water from private suppliers who ship it in tank trucks. Every house and building has water storage tanks that need to be cleaned regularly so the water doesn’t get further contaminated. Every house also has a water filter to produce drinking water. Bottled water is common and a must for foreigners like me.
Amongst the Christmas greetings I am receiving on my Blackberry is one that has a hilarious comparison of cow economics in various countries: Indian corporation, you have two cows, you worship them; Chinese corporation, you have two cows with 300 people milking them, you declare full employment and imprison the journalist who tries to tell the truth. U.S. corporation, you sell one and force the other to produce the milk of four cows and then hire a consultant to analyze why the cow dropped dead! Feels bizarre reading emails from Detroit about cows while I gaze out at scrawny cows nibbling in the fields we are passing by.
[Editor's note: This is Part 6 of a travelogue written by Xconomist Vinit Nijhawan, who is in India visiting venture capitalists and startups with an eye to bridging the Boston and Indian startup ecosystems. We published Part 1 on December 5, and you can find a guide to all Nijhawan's India posts here.]