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Beyond The First Order is a daily email newsletter that digs deep into the higher order effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on industries, ecosystems, economies, governments and more.
This is a free edition of a paid newsletter that’s available exclusively to The Ken’s premium subscribers.
Yes, it’s Monday again. Are you back in an office yet? Did you ride a bike there? Cities are opening up but people, predictably, are wary of public transport. India could’ve been poised for a cycling renaissance, instead, it lost its largest cycle producer to Covid. Electric vehicles, though, may fare better. While some people are wondering what the future holds for their careers, Singaporeans over 40 are looking to use the current crisis to upskill.
This is our 50th edition of Beyond The First Order. Do write in and let us know what you think, what you’d like to see more of, and what we absolutely need to write about.
Bicycles are dead. Long live bicycles
India’s roads aren’t built for cyclists. Road and urban planning is often done with automobiles in mind, and except for a small sliver of well-paid professionals riding modern bikes in cities like Bangalore, cycling is mostly done by kids or the economically disadvantaged.
Now imagine the former CEO of India’s largest car maker, Maruti Suzuki, penning a well-argued ode to bicycles. That’s exactly what Jagdish Khattar did in Business Standard.
Khattar argues that 200 million Indians are forced to limit their employment to a walking radius of their homes, simply because they are too poor to be able to afford even Rs 70-80
(~$1) for transportation each day. A modern bicycle, he argues, will empower them.
“They will be able to scout for better opportunities and wages, and do more jobs in a day than they can if they have to walk. Their household savings will go up, estimates say by 50 per cent to 100 per cent, and one day, they can move up to motorised transport.”
How unlocking bicycle sector's potential can help India's underprivileged, Business Standard
Khattar compares India and China, both of which have large populations, similar urbanisation trends, and large bicycle makers. China today has a 37% bicycle penetration compared to India’s 9%.
China exports no less than 50 million of these bicycles every year to Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. India can easily capture a greater share of these markets because China is subject to anti-dumping duty by the EU and the US, and is not a preferred trade partner. However, no one can match China’s manufacturing prowess.
The very latest trend shows a huge jump in sales of bicycles and e-bicycles in Europe and the US during the Covid-19 pandemic as people look to avoid mass transport.
That will need enormous institutional support to the industry akin to the automotive, textiles, and mobile industries with support packages. The industry needs technology upgrade, as well as foreign partners.
The world might emerge from this pandemic riding on bicycles. India has a chance to lead the pack
How unlocking bicycle sector's potential can help India's underprivileged, Business Standard
A chance to lead the pack might be wishful thinking though, because Atlas Cycles, an iconic 70-year-old bicycle maker (my first bicycle, in the late 1980s, was an Atlas) shut down its main factory and laid off all its employees, till it can find roughly $7 million to restart.
Atlas Cycles - a name that became a synonym for bicycles in India - has shut its last
manufacturing unit in Sahibabad, just outside Delhi, citing lack of funds to run the factory.
The company's CEO NP Singh Rana, however, insists the shutdown is only temporary, and the company will resume operations once it can raise around Rs 50 crore by selling surplus land.
The company shut the factory on June 3, which ironically was also the World Bicycle Day. It laid off 431 remaining employees, though Rana insists they continue to be on the roll of the company and will be paid "lay-off wages" upon marking attendance daily.
Atlas Cycles Shuts Operations At Last Manufacturing Unit Near Delhi, NDTV.com
Will this be the bicycling crisis that forces India to view it as an opportunity?
Peak carbon emissions=electric future?
Last year, we could’ve hit ‘peak car’. This year, with a global pandemic throwing every economic curve off course, we might be staring down the barrel of peak emissions. Total global greenhouse gas emissions, which were estimated to peak around 2030, could’ve peaked a decade early, all thanks to Covid-19.
Covid has temporarily flattened the climate change curve. To lock it in, however, all eyes are on one country. As the largest hub of carbon emissions, China’s response to its economic unlock could drag the world back from the peaking curve. It’ll also give other economies on the verge of unlocking a license to follow suit.
But China seems to be doing something interesting. Earlier this year, it extended subsidies for EV manufacturers, and is now actively buying up EV fleets to boost domestic production.
“Nio, arguably Tesla’s most direct competitor in China, said in early April that deliveries rose 11.7% in the first quarter to 3,838 vehicles. The start-up said 69% of all deliveries made from mid-February to mid-March were from word-of-mouth referrals.
The company also forged a strategic agreement with the city of Hefei in late February—when roughly only two-thirds of the country had returned to work. Nio announced progress on that deal on April 29, with news of a forthcoming 7 billion yuan ($1 billion) in capital from strategic investors, which include government-related entities.”
Electric cars take the spotlight in China’s post-coronavirus stimulus plans, CNBC
Alibaba-backed EV maker XPeng launched an electric sports sedan P7, and WM motors is keen to open 190 stores across the country. This renaissance of electric vehicles is only possible because the Chinese government, arguably, views the sector as part of its national economic response.
How will India’s fledgling EV sector fare in comparison? EVs have been in the eye of a political ping-pong match between auto manufacturers, industry lobbies, and the government. With an unprecedented peek into what clean air actually looks like, EV manufacturers are hopeful they can convince the powers-that-be to build out the infrastructure needed. It’s also that, as demand for oil builds back up, traditional automobile lobbies might be as weak as they’ve ever been.
It’s a good time for EVs to strike. It's not like oil prices will stay down forever. And EV manufacturers want to drive that message home.
A Covid reset for curricula
The coronavirus pandemic has upended education. More specifically, how it happens. Physical classrooms have given way to virtual ones on Zoom, WhatsApp, and Google Meet.
Now, changes may be afoot in how much, or even what, is taught. Delhi, which has earned a lot of praise for turning around its public schools in recent years, has some suggestions. Its education minister, Manish Sisodia, recently wrote to his counterpart in the Union
government, advocating this:
To begin with, NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) should reduce the syllabus by at least 30% across all grades and subjects. Let there be more depth in learning and understanding rather than spreading the curriculum far and wide.
Covid-19: A historic opportunity to redefine the Indian school system, Hindustan Times
India has been trying to fix the problem of “curriculum overload” and Covid could accelerate that. India has 250 million students—nearly a fifth of its population—in around 1.6 million schools. That the quality of most of these schools is poor is hardly news. The focus is on completing the syllabus every year, culminating in stress-inducing exams, rather than understanding what the kids have learnt.
This problem is hardly unique to India.
Worldwide, hundreds of millions of children reach young adulthood without even the most basic skills like calculating the correct change from a transaction, reading a doctor’s instructions, or understanding a bus schedule—let alone building a fulfilling career or educating their children.
Online learning only deepens the digital divide, with children from poor families unable to access a gadget or seek the assistance of a tech-savvy parent. Governments have to weigh this against the potential risks in sending children to school.
But the crisis has also given policymakers an opportunity to think about something which has implications that will outlast the pandemic: the content and method of education. Both in person and online.
Have bait, will hook
Covid has given edtech companies a (literally) captive audience. It’s no surprise they’re on a hiring spree. There are about 12,000 vacancies across the sector.
“Some of the top employers are Byju’s, Unacademy, Whitehat Jr, Vedantu and Simplilearn, among others...which have seen doubling of edtech mandates...there are over 90,000 contractual or gig positions across edtech firms, which are looking to ramp up due to an increased demand for online learning, according to ManpowerGroup estimate.”
The jobs cut across roles in product, finance and sales, and… teachers. The role of teachers who can take classes, create quality content, and keep students hooked to the platform, once the initial rush for online classes settles down, is of utmost importance.
Schools teachers have been taking classes for multiple hours a day, creating content and updating their schools about their progress. On top of that, they’ve had to unlearn classroom teaching and quickly adapt to teaching online. All on a reduced or zero-salary basis, due to the pandemic.
With many schools now compelled to cut salaries, any guess where these teachers might be headed?
“Companies are looking for domain expertise in the field of technology, product, finance, strategy and HR. Salaries could range from Rs 10 lakh for a fresher to Rs 50-80 lakh (including stock options) for a senior or top management role.”
The poaching, says one Delhi-based school leader, has already started. Companies like Vedantu and Unacademy have built their appeal on “star tutors”. Now is the perfect time to go shopping and stock up on bargains. “50% of our teachers were offered jobs by edtech companies. They might only end up teaching 3-4 hours a day. Compared to now, where they manage multiple classes, correct assignments and are answerable to parents and their principals. What are they likely to choose?”
Covid-19 is costing millions of people their jobs. If you’re young and relatively early in your career, you’re more likely to get new employment once the economy reopens.
It’s a bigger problem if you’re above 40 and already specialised in your field. You cost more and are perceived as less flexible. For these reasons, it’s always been tougher for mid-career people to find new work.
Singapore’s median age is 42, much higher than in its neighbouring countries. It compiled data on the employability phenomenon last year:
“[…] six months after being laid off, 76.3 per cent of those in their 30s had found another job, compared to 65.8 per cent of workers in their 40s and 52.2 per cent of those in their 50s.”
In Singapore, mid-career workers face the brunt of job losses in the looming coronavirus
recession, South China Morning Post
In post-pandemic Singapore, several industries, like aviation and hospitality, expect long downturns. The mid-career employability problem will become all too real. What are the long-term implications?
Singapore is already ramping up re-skilling programmes targeting this age group to make them more attractive to up-and-coming sectors. Many might have to start over in lower-paying jobs.
With nothing to lose, Singapore’s 40-plus professionals could feel more inclined to try new things, like joining less established companies or even starting up on their own. This wouldn't be bad for the startup ecosystem either. Good entrepreneurs are older than we think. Research in the US concluded that the average age of a successful startup founder is 45.
Startups stuck by definitions
Startups are businesses. So are what are called micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). They share the same end goal—to make money.
But their methods are different. Startups run in untested waters, are dependent on very high growth, and run into years of losses. While MSMEs start small, grow steady, and turn in profits as soon as possible.
Last month, the Indian government announced a number of relief measures for MSMEs as part of a relief package, including equity infusion and collateral-free loans. Startups want a share of the pie. This, despite the government changing the definition of MSMEs so that it could include startups.
“We need to ensure we have access to funds. We have applied for the MSME registration so that we can avail collateral-free loans at a time when it is even more critical for us to obtain expensive medical equipment to keep the centres running," said Moddhia.
Short of funds, startups line up to register as MSMEs for govt sops, LiveMint
In a way, startups have been let down by definitions. The government also had a special plan for startups. In early April, BFO wrote about how startups were aghast at the plan the Small Industries Development Bank of India unveiled for them. Among other things, it needed startups to be profitable to get loans.
In the US, startups that were eligible for similar loans preferred to pass.
Their rationale? First, the rules that these loans come with were not very clear. There’s a legal risk. Second, reputation is at stake too.
By taking a loan, “you are necessarily reducing funds available for other companies,” said Devon Tivona, chief executive officer of corporate travel startup Pana. “The public is judging some companies as worthy or unworthy of the funds.” He decided not to apply.
Some investors and startups say they want to avoid PPP loans because of a perception they are intended for businesses like dry cleaners and family-run restaurants, rather than companies backed by venture capital.
Startups Decide It’s Easier to Skip PPP Money Than Decipher Rules, Bloomberg
Indian startups are going to find themselves in a similar situation, considering India has more than 63 million MSMEs, 99.4% of which are micro-enterprises.
If you’re a startup with even a glimmer of an alternative credit line, you’d better explore that before looking towards the government.
In data we trust
Speak to any startup ever, and their secret sauce is their “Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning capabilities.” But what happens when the AI/ML is not just ineffective but incorrect? It can have very real world consequences, like not finding a house for rent.
The automated background check for Ms. Johnson cast a wide net, looking for negative information from criminal databases even in states where she had never lived and pulling in records for women whose middle names, races and dates of birth didn’t match her own. It combined criminal records from five other women: four Samantha Johnsons and a woman who had used the name as an alias, even though the screening report said she was an “active inmate” in a Kentucky jail at the time.
“You can totally tell we’re not the same person at all,” said Ms. Johnson, who eventually got the apartment after she convinced the landlord she wasn’t a criminal.
Beyond The First Order is a daily newsletter on the far-reaching consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. This newsletter is published by The Ken—a digital, subscription-driven publication focussing on technology, business, science and healthcare
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