What are the android aspirations?

Standardization is a zero-sum game. There are clear winners. And modern history is littered with the carcasses of losers. Betamax was priced out by VHS, which came to dominate the home video VCR market for the next two decades. Microsoft’s bundling of Internet Explorer with its Windows operating systems put paid to Netscape Navigator’s growth plans. And with the likes of Facebook and Twitter amassing users, Google+ was destined for failure.

What are the upcoming standards?

Even though he doesn’t admit it openly, Maini is prescient about an upcoming standards shake-out. That’s why SUN isn’t competing to be the next VHS or Microsoft. They’ve set their sights on a much closer example in history: Android.

“Think of us as the Android platform for electric mobility. It’s an open standard, with little, individualized tweaks for different form-factors. Just like Android has the capacity to tweak its apps for a Xiaomi or Samsung phone. But the basic application remains the same,” explains Maini.

The comparison with Android makes SUN’s ambition—to be the new normal in charging standards—crystal clear. Maini admits, however, that the SUN solution isn’t exactly like Android’s open standards. The involvement of OEMs—to make the battery compatible—is needed from the start.

This complicates things.

Breadth of operations

At the end of the day, says ION’s Aryan, standardization isn’t about the technology or breadth of operations. It’s about exerting power and influence. Aryan launched ION Energy with a similar battery-as-a-service model in mind, but its ambitions were cut short by low-cost batteries from Chinese competitors. ION’s model has since pivoted to its current BMS focus.

For the Android-like scale, SUN needs to have an Android-like influence.

“The only places where swapping has really worked at scale is where an OEM or a fleet owner themselves have popularised a battery standard.

They have the scale and influence to do it,” says Aryan, citing Taiwan-based Gogoro’s model. Gogoro, which manufactures its own electric smart scooters, has built out an extensive swapping network across Taipei to service its two-wheeler fleet and flood the market with its standardized energy offering–GoStation.

Closer home, it’s what Ola might try with its new electric fleet and charging infrastructure, and through its investment in ride-share companies like Vogo.

Role of the Third-Party energy

“It’s going to be really difficult for a third-party energy provider to wield that kind of influence on an OEM partner or a large fleet owner, to get them to adopt their standard,” says Aryan, echoing SmartE’s Srivastava.

To his credit, Maini has put his considerable influence to good use. SUN’s been proactive in signing up OEMs and fleet owners, seven of whom he’s not willing to name before negotiations conclude. “We already have names like Ashok Leyland on board,” he says, confident that he will be able to capture the first-mover advantage with his roster of influential partners.

SUN’s early play at a walled garden approach might work to some extent. But to create, establish and scale one standard, a battery platform like SUN will need a significant shift in goalposts. The parallel then is not Android, but Jio.

“If you’re willing to put in the resources that Jio did for the telecom sector, then you might gather enough influence to unite OEMs and others to your standard,” says Aryan. But a Jio-like scorched earth strategy—which would mean offering swapping/charging literally for free— means billions of dollars in cash burn to keep customers on one platform.

What are the dominance ratings?

Even that dominance might be fleeting in the fickle mobility sector, with the constant flux in battery sizes, power, and chemistries. The hero might have signed onto the SUN platform for now, but as Gill reveals, there’s nothing stopping it from signing on other providers.

“Maybe we’ll sign up different partners for different geographical zones,” he says. Hero’s approach might be to spread its risk, but it’s also a prime example of why the market may stay fragmented for longer.

And while fleet-owners like Srivastava want this fragmentation to end, he too, can’t see an individual company tying it all together. “The government must get involved with the OEMs to create this battery standard,” opines Srivastava.



Learn to give the credit where it’s due

But that was another deliberate strategy Udaan’s founders picked up at Flipkart—fund aggressive growth through aggressive losses, in turn, funded via aggressive venture capital money raised at aggressive valuations. As Flipkart’s $20 billion acquisition by Walmart showed, it can sometimes work.

What does the logistics claim?

To be sure, Udaan started only in late 2016 and had not yet ventured into logistics. Acquiring customers without charging them anything meant Udaan’s top line was blank. Its income that year totaled Rs 1.69 crore ($244,000) of which Rs 1.63 crore ($235,000) came from interest on its bank deposits and the rest from again on the sale of some investments.

In 2017, Udaan began charging its users for logistics and credit services, for the first time making it apparent how the varied experiences of its founders fit together. Malviya had been Flipkart’s chief technology officer, while Kumar headed the e-retailer’s in-house vendor WS Retail and Gupta was vice president of finance and analytics. Logistics, finance, and technology were their respective domains.

The first move made by Udaan was around finance when in December 2016 it set up Hiveloop Capital Pvt Ltd to offer credit facilities to its customers. Then, in September 2017, it set up Hiveloop Logistics, and in a regulatory filing, said it was in the process of setting up its logistics network across India.

Between September and October 2017, two more units were incorporated. Hiveloop Apps to provide app-related solutions, and Hiveloop Internet to provide pan-Indian payment services.

Udaan declined to respond to multiple requests from The Ken for this story but a blog post by the company in April 2018 underscored the importance the company places on the potential of its credit business. “It would be interesting to see how the $300 billion SME lending market gets impacted through efforts such as ours. It’s a market that has not been meaningfully addressed yet and we certainly hope to make a large dent,” it read.

Pending since a long time

With an NBFC license pending, Udaan teamed up with DAR Credit & Capital, a non-banking financial company (NBFC) based in Kolkata, to provide credit to buyers and working capital to sellers. Regulatory filings show it loaned DAR Credit Rs 6.10 crore ($880,000) at an interest rate of 12% per annum for the year ended March 2018. DAR Credit refused to comment, saying it cannot disclose internal information on Udaan.

But Udaan’s partnership with DAR Credit appears to have been a trial balloon, as recent reports indicate it has finally been granted an independent NBFC license.

One of the beneficiaries of Udaan’s credit facility is Pramod Gupta, a wholesaler of kitchen supplies in Uttar Pradesh. Gupta has been on Udaan for about eight months and has used their credit services four times. When asked why he chose to borrow from Udaan, he said credit is available quickly and can be paid off interest-free in 30 days, after which a 10% interest rate is applicable.

The time for free lunches is over

Gupta claims to get daily orders worth Rs 40,000-50,000 ($580-720) through Udaan. He is not present on IndiaMART, saying it’s “too hi-fi” for him to use. Usually, these orders come directly through Udaan’s app, while Udaan representatives occasionally visit or call with additional orders.

In the past week, however, he noticed that Udaan has begun levying a service fee. He says that when he received his payment, 6% had been deducted from the final amount. Gupta, however, is planning to circumvent this by increasing his prices by 6% as well, and then if “we continue to get orders that are good, otherwise it’s God’s wish,” he laughs.

Even when a buyer orders on credit, a 3.75% commission is taken from sellers on those orders, a digital marketing executive for Pranera Textiles in Tamil Nadu’s textile hub of Tirupur said.

It isn’t clear yet how much money Udaan has made from its credit operations.

Meanwhile in 2018, Udaan’s logistics business—which has grown to 500 hubs in as many cities—also started to generate money. In 2018, 95.5% of its revenue came from its logistics business. Udaan charges buyers 1-2% as delivery fees, while sellers pay for warehousing when around 30-40% of their sales are driven by its platform. These charges, however, are not uniform and are undertaken on a case-by-case basis, like with Gupta.




Building the OYO for student housing

With solving students’ housing needs a relatively recent phenomenon, companies in the space are still trying out various business models to see which one works best. Stanza, for example, aggregates existing inventory in the market—hostels, paying guest (PG) or large residential spaces—and customizes each property to enforce its standards.

Keeping the housekeeping services ready

These additions range from wi-fi and gym facilities to laundry services, common areas, and dining rooms. The rooms are also more luxurious—replete with beds, study tables, air conditioners, closets—with an on-call housekeeping service to keep them neat and tidy. It takes around 15-30 days for Stanza to retrofit a property. These efforts go a long way in differentiating Stanza from traditional hostels and PG services, which are usually poorly maintained and often lack modern amenities.

Stanza’s Dutta says there are enough good quality properties available in the market. Supply issues only arise, he says, in the crowded suburbs of metro cities like Bengaluru or Mumbai. In these areas, it is difficult to find suitable properties since most are built to accommodate only a few people. When Stanza was setting up one of its campuses in Delhi, for example, it had to lease out four adjacent bungalows to manage a capacity of 200 beds.

Existing hostels and PG setups, on the other hand, make for easier turnarounds. Unable to reform and modernize, hostel owners find Stanza’s proposition hard to resist. Renovated, improved properties with rentals higher than what they traditionally earned. Paris House, for instance, was originally one such hostel.

It’s a similar model to what OYO does with hotels—standardizing them and bring them under its banner—except with a focus on students. It allows Stanza to focus on services and customer acquisition while remaining asset-light. This allows it to scale rapidly, enlisting multiple property owners across cities to quickly expand its presence. In the year ended March 2018, Stanza saw revenues of Rs 1.7 crore ($244,900), but losses of Rs 2.3 crore ($331,400).

Do it yourself

Not everyone is convinced by Stanza’s approach, though. Take property tech firm BuildSupply’s founder, Sameer Nayar, for example. While Dutta believes the market is flush with properties suited to student needs, Nayar thinks the opposite. Nayar also has experience in the student housing industry in the US, having worked for Credit Suisse, which was then lending to student housing properties.

Nayar is referring to PBSAs (Purpose Built Student Accommodation). As the name suggests, PBSA is housing built specifically to suit student needs, not a structure repurposed for student housing. Hostels could be an example of PBSA, but not all hostels are appropriately designed.

According to property consultant Knight Frank’s Global Student Property 2019 report, India is sorely lacking in PBSA. While the report estimated the demand for 8 million PBSA beds in India, only 1.6 million bed spaces are currently available.

Housing Startup

Shobhit Maleta, the founder of the Dehradun-based student housing startup IndeCampus, says that a large part of the supply today is residential inventory. While developers are keen on leasing these because of the returns in student housing, they don’t necessarily make for good hostels. “When you are operating a hostel in a residential building, it is commercial usage. Residential buildings are not designed to take that kind of traffic. Eventually, the system breaks down,” explains Maleta.

Resident Welfare Associations (RWA) can also be a stumbling block, typically opposing commercial activity that could disturb the neighborhood. Both Stanza and OxfordCaps, however, say they haven’t had issues with RWAs, and claim to only take properties once the RWA is on board. Gera says OxfordCaps usually takes an entire block in an apartment to avoid such confrontations.

The lack of clear regulations and guidelines for hostels in many states could also prove to be an issue. There are often no specifications for room size, the specific bed area that students must get, or fees and necessary amenities. Instead, hostels work in a grey zone under a commercial license. Maleta says that the lack of standards and compliance could result in disaster. In the aftermath of a recent fire at a hostel in Delhi’s Janakpuri locality, reports indicate that the hostel had no fire safety equipment and smoke alarms were switched off.



From Freshdesk to Freshworks and beyond

While the list of VCs on the company’s cap table is long, there are three investors and funding rounds that made a big difference to the company’s fortunes.

In 2011, Accel Partners put in $1 million. It was Accel’s first SaaS investment in India and was made when Freshdesk had only a few small customers, but Mathrubootham’s pitch was compelling enough to convince them. While a million dollars might not sound like a lot today, in that day and age, it went a long way in helping the company seed its marketing efforts.

Best of times

In 2012, Tiger Global led a round of $5 million. As with Accel, it was Tiger’s first SaaS investment in India and came when the company only had a few dozen small customers, but again, Mathrubootham was able to present a narrative that convinced Lee Fixel, then a partner at Tiger Global, that this could be a big company. Raising a Series B is tough at the best of times, but being able to do so on “future potential” rather than “past performance” is a rare skill. Tiger’s involvement not only helped Freshdesk double down on its marketing budgets, but it also allowed the company to hire talent in Silicon Valley.

Finally, in 2014, Google Capital led a round of $31 million in the company. By this time, Freshdesk already had more than 20,000 customers but Google’s involvement helped the company fine-tune its SEO and SEM efforts and optimize marketing spend.

Crucially, unlike B2C companies where funding is used merely for Hail-Mary deep discounting and doesn’t guarantee customer loyalty or retention, in the case of Freshdesk, funding was used to create a virtuous flywheel. For each dollar spent in marketing, the company could tell the business that would be generated and the time it would take for this revenue to exceed the initial marketing dollar spent.

This measure, known as the payback period, is a key metric for SaaS companies and one in which Freshdesk excelled in. While competitors like Zendesk had payback periods of 18 to 24 months, Freshdesk had a figure of just 6 months. This was a function of both efficient marketing spending as well as having an army of low-cost marketing resources in Chennai—fresh engineering graduates trained for two-three months in the craft of SaaS marketing.

Expanding it in both ways

Freshdesk’s expertise in marketing helped it get from $1 million to $10 million ARR, but to go from that point to $100 million, it had to expand both longitudinally and latitudinally.

Freshdesk morphed from a single product company to Freshworks, a full suite of enterprise solutions spanning IT services management product (Freshservice), customer relationship management (Freshsales), customer messaging (Freshchat), call center (Freshcaller) and human resources management (Freshteam).

In terms of customer segments, the company now services the entire spectrum from small and medium enterprises to multinationals. The company has also expanded from pure inbound marketing to a mix of inbound and outbound sales techniques, hiring heavy-hitters to drive direct enterprise sales to complement the customers who come on their own to the website.

End of the journey

In Mathrubootham’s worldview, the $100 million ARR mark is a milestone rather than an end to the journey. His eye is now set on the $1 billion ARR mark, with an IPO somewhere along the way.

These rarefied heights are a new world for Mathrubootham, populated as they are only by a handful of the top SaaS companies in the world such as Salesforce, Workday, and Zendesk. There is no prior playbook to read from, and the rules of this game need to be improvised and made up along the way.

But 2019 is altogether different from 2011. The markets for SaaS products might have grown ten times but the competition has grown by multiple factors. Staying relevant in such a competitive environment is a daunting challenge.

Today, Freshworks is said to spend tens of millions of dollars each year on Google ads, correspondingly, the payback period has increased from six months to fifteen months, still respectable but not as big a competitive difference as earlier.




You’re still using fire as your source of propulsion

Electric scooter manufacturer Ather’s offerings—which retail for between Rs 1,10,000-Rs 1,25,000 ($1,600-1,820)—are already considered too precious for the Indian masses. A comparative internal combustion engine (ICE) scooter, like the best-selling Honda Activa, for example, retails for much less: Rs 70,000 ($1,020).

With popular mass-market ICE motorcycles such as the Hero Splendour retailing for an affordable Rs 60,000 ($875) and electric scooters barely able to make a dent in the market, electric bikes may be an even harder sell.

Still limited infrastructure

Then there are issues such as a limited range of —150 kilometers. While this is still double that of Ather’s scooters, it is still limited in a country with a shortfall of charging infrastructure. And to top all of it, the bike’s mixed bag of tricks—middling top speed, high acceleration, and adjustable power delivery—makes its intended target demographic also unclear.

Yet, Revolt and a few others like it sense an opportunity. According to Bengaluru-based startup Ultraviolette’s co-founders, CEO Narayan Subramaniam and CTO Niraj Rajmohan, “[ICE bike makers] are incurring higher costs to build vehicles to higher emission standards. So it’s sort of going to level out at some point, and that crossover point is very close.”

The number of startups working on electric motorcycles in India. These do not include existing ICE bike manufacturers

From Micromax to Revolt

Sharma says he started his EV journey around five years ago, after realizing that connected mobility was the future. He claims he initially wanted to build an all-electric car, like Tesla, but what started as a car project became a two-wheeler one.

His conversations with experts, peers, and customers led him to identify three key problem areas:

1) No one had made a product that equaled or bettered an ICE—“If we give you an inferior product, in terms of experience, in terms of design, in terms of everything, you’ll never switch.”

2) Range—“If someone who stays in Gurgaon wants to go to Noida, even if it’s just once a month, how many times will he borrow your bike? You have to take that thing out of his mind.”

3) Portable and swappable batteries—“80% of people don’t have a place to park their vehicles inside or close enough to their homes.”

So, Sharma adopted his Micromax game for Revolt too, bundling feature after feature into the product, based on a keen understanding of customer tastes. (By virtue of pioneering, many category-defining features in its phones—like long-life batteries, dual-SIM and selfie cameras, Micromax’s phones were very popular. They were, at one point, the highest-selling phones in India. But today, Micromax’s market share stands at under 5%.)

With Revolt, Sharma wants to make a bike that not only competes with other electric bikes but also replaces petrol-powered bikes right off the bat.

Some common questions asked

The Revolt RV 400 boasts a range of 150 km on ‘Eco mode’ and a top speed of 85 km/hr. In the country of “Kitna deti hai?,” (how much does it give?) mileage, or in this case, range, is the key. Revolt says the RV400 will do about 150 km on a single charge. That is approximately 50% more than Ather and Tork’s best bets.

What happens after the juice runs out? Revolt’s solution is to build every possible permutation. Its batteries can be pulled out and swapped. Or taken inside a home or office and charged. Or swapped via mobile swapping stations run by the company. Or ordered like pizzas via hyperlocal delivery partners.

The revolt has started pre-booking for the RV 400 on its website and on e-commerce site Amazon at Rs 1,000 ($15). Sales will start in Delhi and spread out slowly. Revolt, eventually, plans to sell in seven cities. While most sales will happen online, there will also be offline stores for people to experience the bikes. “I just need four dealerships in Bangalore, not 50,” says Sharma.



Whose bed is it anyway—India’s unfolding rental economy revolution

Today, these two missed opportunities have a combined valuation north of $100 billion. Flipkart, valued at $21 billion, is synonymous with Indian e-commerce. Uber, with a valuation of $82.4 billion at the time of its recent IPO, is the flag-bearer of the sharing economy.

Opportunities Missed

The rental economy is a product of the times we live in. To millennials, jobs are less permanent than they’ve ever been. According to a survey by jobs site Indeed, 56% of urban employees changed jobs at least once in 16 months, and at least thrice in the past 10 years. In the hunt for better paying, more appealing jobs, people are willing to move to job centers far from home.

What are the qualification criteria?

Putting down roots gets even harder when you consider that real estate in most large metros is prohibitively expensive. Take Mumbai, for instance. According to the home purchase affordability index put out by real estate services firm JLL India, the average annual household income in Mumbai falls well below what is needed to qualify for a bank loan for a 1,000-square foot apartment. This, despite Mumbai’s wages growing faster than anywhere else in the country. Unsurprisingly, homeownership fell to a seven-year low in 2018.

Add to this the fact that consumer durable loans were not easily available in the financial year ended March 2019, and you have the perfect pitch for the rental economy. With both jobs and residence increasingly transient, and even bank loans harder to come by, ownership is losing sheen.

“Typically, people change jobs and houses every once in 1.5-2 years. So their lives are not entirely predictable, and EMIs is a commitment you can’t break out of,” said Geetansh Bamania, CEO of rental platform RentoMojo. Rentals, he adds, allow for flexibility.

Wide range of options available

Rental companies are banking on this, pushing the model as a far more convenient option. A hybrid of ownership and pay-as-you-go is taking shape in India thanks to RentoMojo and its competitors like Furlenco, GrabOnRent, and Guaranteed. Now, even manufacturers like electric two-wheeler maker Ather and water purifier maker Livpure Smart are getting in on the act. Yes, in the millennial world, even utilities are rentable.

The benefits are legion—use a product for as long as you want, without the bells and whistles of maintaining it and selling it. “I don’t mind buying new. It’s what you do with it when you want to get rid of it, which makes renting easy. The second-hand goods market is not evolved enough to get rid of goods easily,” says Satyajeet, a 29-year-old who moved from Pune to Bengaluru to work for an e-commerce company.

In the West, subscriptions and rentals have been a logical progression as people are already familiar with the concept of leasing cars. More than one in four new cars in the US is rented. So it is not entirely surprising that a three-year-old SoftBank-funded car subscription company Fair has already raised $500 million. Rent the Runway, a 10-year old clothing and home décor rental company, has also managed to hit a $1-billion valuation.

In India, renting is a 7-year-old phenomenon in its nascency. Rental companies here have raised only $426.82 million in funding, according to data from startup tracker Tracxn. Its users, according to industry sources, number around just 1 million (as opposed to 150 million for cab aggregator Ola).



The first real ‘grown-⁠⁠⁠⁠up’ cooking experience was the simple act of washing

Krishni remembers a brief period many years ago when all the snacks in the house were store-bought. This was when packaged food was gaining popularity—indeed, for the average middle-class household, it was somewhat aspirational. “Things like potato or banana chips, chaklis and chivda, which we used to previously make at home, switched to being store-bought.”

Being Health-Conscious

The Shroffs are more health-conscious now and take pleasure in making food from scratch. They even make their own pasta, partly because the other option would be to drive nearly 30km to source a packet. However, they do have access to plenty of fresh produce, even if they have to travel to the next town for it, and have recently embraced the art of pickling.

There’s another lasting change that has taken place in their diet. Earlier, Krishni’s mother used to cook meals that were informed by household wisdom passed on from generation to generation— like pairing a certain kind of sabzi with a certain kind of dal, because it’s supposed to aid digestion. However, now, this information comes from a nutritionist who plans their meals for them.

“There’s a lot of soup for dinner,” Krishni says.

With Meera Ganapathi and her husband Ayappa K.M., both in their 30s, we’re back in the big city (they live in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra with their two cats, Apple and Norman Francis). Meera, editor and co-founder of Soup, and Ayappa, a filmmaker, have a 384-litre double-door fridge in their apartment that is a collection of edible souvenirs from recent travels—bottles of apricot jam from Ladakh, jamón and olives (two kinds: pitted and seeded)—that sit next to delicious markers of home in the form of a bottle of tomato thokku, Molokai podi and extra filter coffee decoction.

Like many couples their age, both Meera and Ayappa are conscious eaters and consumers and “strongly believe in eating according to local availability and weather.” Although their cook comes in five times a week, Meera makes breakfast on most days, from a weekly menu that looks something like this: Pongal with coconut chutney and sambar on Monday; idli with chutney, sambar and podi on Tuesday; fried eggs and bread on Wednesday; avil upma on Thursday; uttappam with sambar, chutney and podi on Friday; and roti with bhurji on Saturday.

The fridge then is a catch-all for leftovers that Meera says linger for not more than three days. A stickler for a clean fridge now (armed with the most effective weapon in her arsenal, distilled vinegar), she says that she did initially have trouble getting rid of the food.

Declaration of love

“I especially don’t have the heart to throw stuff I bought on holidays. This meant I held on to a big pack of Matcha Kit Kat for five months. Nobody wanted to touch it and I kept waiting for someone to come home and declare that they love Matcha. It never happened,” she says. These days, rigorous cleaning is conducted every two weeks.

In the vegetable section, there are always curry leaves, coriander, lime, green chilies, ginger, eggplants, bitter gourds, peas, ladies’ fingers, beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers. And there’s always the option of a quick egg sandwich.

Although Meera can now whip up a meal at short notice, this wasn’t always the case. Little over a year ago, she barely cooked and instead ate out a fair bit. “The first real ‘grown-up’ cooking experience was the simple act of washing and marinating a fish. Something so alien to me, especially because I grew up in a primarily vegetarian household.”

Talking about her childhood, Meera says that although her mother didn’t cook red meat (chicken would happen occasionally), eggs were a big part of the diet. But most often, the family stuck to light Tamil Brahmin meals where “the batter is always homemade, the masalas are ground fresh, the podis are all sorts of exotic daals and leaves the ground and preserved for everything from ailments to cravings.”




Seeing red at the virtue signal

Anshu Gupta’s short answer to the last question would be “yes”.

On the ground in Ernakulam for weeks now, the Magsaysay winner and co-founder of Goonj, an NGO that focuses on disaster relief, harks back to the 2015 Chennai floods, another disaster that catalyzed social media mobilization.

It also brought an ostentatious breed of virtue signallers out of the woodwork, like the man who provided four sacks of rice, with a catch—that volunteers click photographs of “his rice” being distributed, says Gupta.

Was posting the images necessary?

“He said he wanted to post the images to ‘motivate’ family, friends, and neighbors to donate,” he guffaws. “There are 200-250 trucks coming and you want to be singled out for validation. What conviction do you have if you need a photo-op to encourage giving?”

Virtue signaling has always been around. Think engraved memorial benches, water fountains and foundation stones in the names of generous donors. Think your neighbor who announced his donation for the society pandal, or the friend who hinted at why she’s more progressive than you. Do you, however, remember the names on those benches? Probably not.

It’s here that the internet catapults into posterity what would otherwise be limited to immediate memory or a close circle. Social media platforms give us a space to present an ideal version of ourselves, to seek affirmation that we’re doing well. Instant notification + instant gratification + more eyeballs = signalling on steroids.

“You have people asking for selfies with survivors, or donating a 200ml bottle but announcing that they gave 10,000 bottles. Armchair experts 1,000km away who give snap judgments without understanding the situation. People who wear company T-shirts while sorting and handing out supplies,” Gupta adds.

Unlike many NGOs, Goonj does not publicize big-money donors on its website or on social media. It neither hands out certificates to volunteers nor announces tie-ups with companies. If anything, it’s others who announce tie-ups with Goonj, says Gupta.

“Some e-commerce companies who collaborated with us for the Kerala floods were well-intentioned. But for others, it was an opportunity. You have thousands of people delivering items to one location, which reduces logistical costs. Your image is also bolstered,” he explains. “At the end of the day, the intention is what matters.”

But does absolute selflessness even exist?

Piece of mind

Academic research organization Monk Prayogshala is an outlier in a commercial complex housing travel agencies, marketing consultants, logistics firms and IT companies. Its modest 300 sq. ft office in Powai, Mumbai, is where psychology, economy, and sociology converge to research social behavior. It’s here, at a round table with social psychologists Hansika Kapoor and Arathy Puthillam and economist Anirudh Tagat, that I find my answer: strictly speaking, all donations fall under the self-serving umbrella.

“At the most basic it is warm-glow giving, which implies that generosity makes you feel good. That in itself is a payoff,” Kapoor says.

Unless you’re an unfeeling drone or absolutist in an increasing relativist world, you’ll contend there’s nothing wrong with feeling good about yourself. Even saints have a right to self-love. The argument, then, that giving should be absolutely selfless stands on shaky ground.

Online donation

It’s more practical to dissect the marriage between identity and online donation efforts. Consider the Nagaland floods—the north-eastern state has been no less affected by torrential rain than Kerala, but it received significantly less attention.

If a sense of belonging dictates what we donate to, then clearly many of us don’t identify with #Nagalandfloods. Social media mobilization for north-east India is observably less than for disasters elsewhere in the country, despite 50,000 people being displaced and a plea of Rs 800 crore ($110 million) in relief going unheard in Nagaland alone.

Facts are less appealing than narratives, and the narrative is that we give less with our heads, more with our hearts. “Fragmented groups along state lines are more likely to respond to donations from their own group. If there’s a strong sense of shared identity, you are more likely to give if others from that group are also giving,” explains Tagat.



Who’ll guard objects they aren’t trained to respect?

Roughly 2,100km east, back in Kolkata, a drowsy attendant in Indian Museum’s Bharhut Gallery is startled by a camera flash. Saree pleats clutched in one hand, she chides the culprit for standing on the base of a 2,000-year-old Sunga stupa.

I decide to take the museum director up on his offer of seeing the improved security infrastructure. But when I ask for department head Jaydeep Das, I’m ushered to meet “administrator in charge” Nita Sengupta.

Description of the system

The approach to the first floor of the administrative section, tucked behind the main museum, smells of cigarettes and somebody’s lunch. Right ahead is Sengupta’s cabin, where a conservation officer with mehndi-dyed hair sits silently at her desk. It takes several minutes for her to notice she has a visitor, and a few seconds to summon Das and museum caretaker Supreme Bhowmick.

“Let’s go,” she says flatly.

Das’s template government office—saloon doors, glass countertop table, white-inked nameplate—overlooks the museum courtyard. As children prance outside, we settle into his cabin. When it comes to matters of security, everyone but Das talks.

“So yes, CISF should be here by the first quarter of 2019. And we have 429 cameras,” Bhowmick drones.


“But Mr. Purohit said you have 560 cameras, and that CISF will be here within three months. Which one is it?”

“429 cameras now and 560 eventually,” he says hurriedly, his eyes darting around the room. “And we have multiple cameras in the Coin Gallery.”

“Is that because most of the coins there were alleged to be fake?”

Das, a former Kolkata Police officer with a buzz cut and denim-on-denim attire, starts fidgeting with each of his four rings in stony silence.

“Who said that?” Sengupta turns sharply.

“Sunil Upadhyay supposedly suspected this. It’s there in his brother’s Supreme Court case against the museum.”

“People don’t know the difference between replicas and fakes,’ she interrupts.

Claims by the report

The mehndi-haired conservation officer, RP Savita, nods vociferously in agreement.

Note: The CAG report had noted that none of India’s national museums conducted periodic authentication checks.

“What about Upadhyay telling his brothers about mismanagement and criminal oversight here just days before he disappeared?”

“When we all get stressed, we share it with our families,” Bhowmick chimes loudly.

“This is not stress. These are serious allegations.”

“Look, he even used to call me didi,” Sengupta gestures animatedly. “He’d called me on the day he was to be admitted to RN Tagore Hospital. That was the last I heard of him…”

“People say he was bribed here to keep his mouth shut.”

“They can say what they want. So can the CAG. We’d even gone for the parliamentary hearing on their report in 2015. It was the Archaeological Survey of India, not us or the National Museum that came under the scanner.”

“Well if everything is fine here, why would there be so much smoke without fire?”

Nothing is impossible

“You see, this is Jadughar,” says Sengupta, turning around with a slight smile. “Anything is possible here. But not everyone likes magic.”

The approach to the first floor of the administrative section, tucked behind the main museum, smells of cigarettes and somebody’s lunch. Right ahead is Sengupta’s cabin, where a conservation officer with mehndi-dyed hair sits silently at her desk. It takes several minutes for her to notice she has a visitor, and a few seconds to summon Das and museum caretaker Supreme Bhowmick.

Editorial illustrations for The Ken by Bombay Bong.



Patanjali mimics the market leaders in packaging

But Patanjali goes a step beyond that, more closely aping well-established brands in naming and/or outward appearance. Sure, it’s something a newcomer might do, but wouldn’t a firm with ambitions of ruling the market want to set itself apart?

Bijoor points out that Patanjali is different from every other arriviste new kid on the block in one crucial aspect. “What Patanjali has done is that, on the one hand, it mimics the market leaders in packaging, but on the other hand, it militates against them in advertising.”

Reveling of the Imagined Glory

He’s alluding to Patanjali’s desi/swadeshi marketing peg—the revisionist retelling of Ayurveda’s imagined glory in days long gone. Pit this against foreign companies with their modern products. The irony, of course, is that the likes of Hindustan Unilever have operated in India as a local company for more than 85 years.

But as they say in marketing, perception is reality—and Patanjali has cleverly come up with a marketing message that might not be strictly true but has resonated enough with its target audience to strike a chord worth thousands of crores.

It might also be worth pointing out that the company follows a clever stratagem of selectively highlighting or under-emphasizing the “Patanjali” brand across its portfolio of products. With most of its ayurvedic supplements and more “traditional” products, the Patanjali brand is front and center.

But for many of its other offerings, prominent display is given to generic terms like “atta noodles” or “butter cookies”, while the Patanjali brand name sits quietly in a corner.

See the image below to witness how this plays out in an actual store:

Come for the Ayurveda, stay for the noodles, biscuits et al.

Which brings us to the second question—is this even legal? Short answer: yep, pretty much.

The long answer

Let’s start by going back to Bijoor’s point about a common semiotic language of branding. While that is undoubtedly true, it is also a fact that the large FMCG companies have an unspoken Omerta code on what is allowed and what isn’t.

A tacit quid-pro-quo that spells out what you can “borrow” from one product and, in turn, what you allow others to “borrow” from your own. Moreover, most of the time, they try to differentiate their products; set themselves apart from the competition.

And coming to Patanjali again, in a strictly legal sense, there are not many competitors can accuse it of in a court of law, even if they were so disposed. This is not to say, however, that there have been no legal claims made against Patanjali.

In March 2016, rival consumer goods company Emami took the company to court claiming that Patanjali’s Kesh Kanti hair oil was very similar to its own Kesh King brand. Both in name and also in the font and presentation of the brand. And that Patanjali had also copied the “unique, aesthetic and innovative shape” of the bottle the hair oil comes in.

The Calcutta High Court found merit in Emami’s claims and issued a preliminary injunction against Patanjali. But in May, both sides settled out of court. Patanjali still has a similar-looking Kesh Kanti hair oil bottle listed on its website.

Out of court settlement

Emami declined to comment on why the matter was settled out of court and what the terms of the settlement were.

Patanjali did not respond to an email seeking comment, sent on 26 September.

Ken spoke to IP rights lawyer Vaibhav Vutts to get an expert take on the issue.

According to Vutts, a company has a strong case to claim an infringement or violation of its intellectual property only when there’s a particularly blatant rip-off—a one-to-one copy of name, design, brand, look and feel.

But generally, the issue is more complex.

For one, every product category has certain terms or types of imagery that are fairly generic to the category. You can’t very well complain that someone is copying your noodles’ packaging just because both your packets have pictures of noodles. Ditto for words or phrases such as “atta noodles”.