Articles by ecothrust at Technorati Headline Animator

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Xiaomi, Vivo and Huawei caught in money laundering and duty evasion reveal how China captured India’s smartphone market

After Xiaomi was caught by the Enforcement Directorate in the massive royalty fraud and money laundering case last month Vivo has been booked for duty evasion and illegally sending Rs 62,000 crores ( $7.8 billion ) to China early last week.  The Enforcement Department also claimed that Huawei repatriated over Rs 750 crores ($100 million ) to China illegally last year even though profits fell. The money laundering by Chinese phone companies in name of manufacturing ‘made in India phones’ has been going on for years.However it picked up pace once the Govt of India introduced the production linked incentive PLI  scheme for made in India phones in 2019. The PLI scheme that gave 6% cash back incentive for incremental production above Rs 4000 crore each year was intended to benefit local production but it ensured explosive growth of Chinese phone makers. Domestic players like Lava and Micromax just faded from competition. In just three years time the Chinese captured 75% of India’s  smartphone market before the Govt of India started investigating what was actually happening and how cheating and money laundering was being done by the Chinese phone makers. The Enforcement Department has now conducted raids on all three Chinese phone makers  Xiaomi, Vivo and Huawei and seized assets worth hundreds of million in five states and frozen bank accounts to stop money laundering. 



The BBK Electronics group of China that owns Vivo, Oppo, Real Me and One Plus brands was the first to pounce on to the opportunity setting up local entrepreneurs in the 5 phone producing states of Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Andhra, Telangana and U.P. to front as Indian manufacturers of Chinese phones in quick time. In the year 2018-19 it had smartphone sales of Rs 38,735 crores as against Rs 43,088 crores of market leader Samsung India. Massive imports from China in CKD form and quick reassembly in these workshops followed by relabelling as ‘Made In India’ ensured 65% growth of smartphone sales to a phenomenal Rs 65,635 crores in the year 2019-2020.  


Because these were not made in India phones the volumes could be ramped up so quickly. By contrast  Samsung India which had taken a decade to establish it self as India’s largest smart phone maker grew 21% that year with sales of Rs 52,315 crores. Xiaomi, the market leader today had sales of Rs 38,196 crores then. But it soon entered the relabelling game and as it’s sales soared they started repatriating thousands of crores back to China as royalty though their phones as per contract were supposed to be made in India.  In April the ED which was investigating Xiaomi for several months seized assets worth Rs 5500 crores ( $750 million ) on charges of money laundering and royalty fraud 


Apart from allegations of violation of contract procedures in the PMLA scheme the ED has started investigation against one of the directors of Vivo against forging papers of Chinese officials and distributors in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The companies directors have fled India. Investigations  are also on against other companies of the BBK Electronic group that include phone makers Oppo and Real Me who have been adopting similar methods to ramp up production in India and claim PLI incentives. Both Income Tax and ED are investigating these Chinese phone makers .


Thursday, June 23, 2022

The Perennial Problem of Call Drops and Dual Sims - Is Digital India Really Cheap?

Hey Telcos, we need phones to talk, not only to download videos. 

Almost everyone in India has two SIM cards. I have been using Airtel and Vodafone networks for more than a decade and still am plagued with poor connectivity like other fellow citizens. Often at peak hours I find congested networks and the standard response from the phone is ‘ Network Is  Busy’.  At that time you cannot phone a person who is not using the phone and is sitting in the same room as you and having the same network. His phone is not busy but the network is. But you can download a video from that same network easily. Also if you try the other SIM card at that time you will find that the other network is working fine and you can talk. 


The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has released the data for voice calls on its MyCall Dashboard portal .The results go a long way to reveal why most citizens in India use dual sims. Why despite paying twice to stay connected, Indians face some of the highest rates of call drop globally at 17.43% and are dogged by very poor voice quality. From the TRAI data we also learn  that apart from call drops 21.87% of the calls suffer from poor voice quality. Only 60% of the calls that we make are of satisfactory quality as per the TRAI website on 22nd June 2022. 

Strangely, Vodafone Idea with Best Voice Call Quality, Looses Money 

Call quality  for indoor calls received the poorest rating of 3.2 on a score of 5 while feedback from those calling from outdoor was slightly better at 3.4 on a score of 10. Comparison of voice quality across TSP showed VI score 4.0 , RJio scoring 3.2 , Airtel and BSNL getting 2.9 and 2.8 respectively. This development is however not recent. This has been a constant feature in competitive digital India since a decade.  As per the data reported by Financial Express on 6th January 2021 Vodafone Idea offered the best voice quality with very high ratings even during the December 2020 pandemic days.       


On a scale of 1 to 5 Idea registered 4.9 in the indoor / outdoor voice call quality with a a satisfactory  rating of 97.59% in terms of call quality experience. Vodafone also had a average voice quality rating of 4.3. and a consumer satisfaction rating of 87.68%. Yet the VodafoneIdea network has been struggling to retain consumers because it is saddled with debt and cannot afford to spend on marketing. Also it often does not enter locations where it does not have adequate infrastructure to provide good quality service. So in those areas it’s service is not great and you have to use the second network. Besides it has certain data speed issues and it looses out in the profitable area of data and video downloads.Having two networks is not an issue though the cost virtually doubles if it really ensures 100% connectivity on a 24x7 basis. But it does not, and friends and associates often complain that your network is always busy unless they have both your numbers and the time and energy to try out both.  We will in the next week find out why this problem is so persistent and what ails the networks and the efforts TRAI has made to improve services that has been resisted by the Telcos  . TRAI orders have been struck down by the Courts when they imposed penalties for call drop in 2017

Monday, June 13, 2022

Ed Tech startups reorganise, as funds dry up, separating the men from the boys

Physicswalla succeeds as Ed Tech Unicorns Struggle Despite Adequate Funding 

India has 14 lakh schools for 32 crore odd student population. Of this 60% students (190 million ) go to Government run schools and 40% students ( 130 million ) go to  private schools.  Schools were closed for 9 months of the year due to  lockdowns and economic uncertainties during the pandemic. This affected the basic economics of the  school infrastructure across the nation both for Government and private run schools as well as colleges. But it also created an opportunity for online education. Not only startups with liberal VC funding but even established universities like MIT and Harvard jumped in to expand online learning courses   But since India’s  aspirational student community was not ready to give up, the demand for online education grew stronger by the day. Two types of ed tech companies entered the fray. Some were those who were bootstrapping and were operating as non profits or low profits and growing organically till they achieved scale. Then there were others like Byju’s  who latched onto opportunities and secured VC funding from multiple global investors at an early stage to enter the lucrative top end of the market. 

Among the Ed tech companies catering to the bottom of the pyramid is Rocket Learning founded by Azeez Gupta that develops the basic foundational concepts for children upto the age of eight in math, science and languages. They currently work in two languages of Hindi and Marathi in four states of Maharashtra, UP, MP and Haryana with 8000 teachers and 100,000 children. Another successful grass root startup is Physicswalla which was founded by Allahabad based Alakh Pandey and Prateek Maheshwar in 2016 initially as a YouTube channel to assist engineering and medical students in the joint entrance exam. In 2020 it launched its app and website and turned profitable by the next two years with 500  teachers educating 6 million students. In 2022 Physicswalla became India’s 101 unicorn raising $100 million in its maiden funding round and becoming the seventh Ed tech unicorn after Byju’s, Unacademy, Eruditus, Vedantu, UpGrad and Lead School. Pandey plans to go vernacular in 9 Indian languages after this round of maiden fund raising. If he succeeds he will redesign the entire Ed Tech industry so heavily focused on English language students at the the top of the pyramid.


The Annual Status Education Report after the 1st wave of the pandemic done in October 2020 by education NGO Pratham revealed that about 43.5% of Government school children had no access to smartphones. While most students received textbooks, only a third of the students received learning materials through WhatsApp, phone calls, videos and online classes. A similar conclusion was reached by the Azim Premji Foundation which undertook a survey for disadvantaged children in five states of the country. Online education which is still in its early days was only helpful for about 30% (100 million) students across the country as per these surveys. 

The funded Ed tech startups targeting these 100 million students at the top of the pyramid are reportedly in trouble with revenues falling short of expectations. In the past five years they have attracted an amazing $4billion of investors money. But their performance has been below par. Even the leader of the pack, the Bengaluru based Byju with a mammoth valuation of $40 billion and an annual paid subscriber base over 5 million students is under pressure. In the year 2021 Byju’s took the acquisition route and bought the coding tutorial services WhiteHat Jr for $300 million to gain traction. Soon after 800 teachers who were working from home resigned  after they were asked to report to office. So the expensive acquisition that was done by Byju’s, actually  lost the  expert pool of coders they had paid for. Thereafter they acquired the JEE tutorial services Aakash  Educational with 200 centres across India and a student base of 250,000 for $950  million, which was another pretty expensive acquisition. It remains to be seen how Byju uses to asset to scale up its online learning platform business.

Lido Learning founded by the former VP of Byju, Sahil Sheth in 2019 and funded by Alibaba,   Ronnie Screwvala of UpGrad  and Vijay Shankar of PayTM sacked 1200 employees in February 2022, whose salaries have still not been paid. In April and May Unacademy and  Vedantu sacked 600 employees each, as both unicorns began restructuring after indifferent results. VC funding of the Ed-tech industry has not yielded the desired results in India. There are reports of poor customer satisfaction and toxic work culture. Now that funding is drying up, many startups will fold up and few    survive and remodel their business. The consolidations and restructuring has already started and will soon separate the men from the boys. 

Monday, June 6, 2022

ED seizes house of ex MD IFFCO in Rs 685 crore money laundering case in ‘Fertiliser Import Scam’

It is the tip of the iceberg in India’s largest Fertiliser Import Scam. 

The Excise Department has attached another house of ex IFFCO MD Udai Shankar Awasthi in the plush South Delhi Hauz Khas Enclave on 3d June. With this the total attached assets seized including Rs 37 crore in the Swiss Bank goes upto Rs 86 crores.  The laundered amount currently under investigation is Rs 685 crores. As per the ED this was the  illegal payment made as commissions by foreign suppliers of fertilisers to the Dubai based sons of US Awasthi during the 2017-2014 period.


But this is the tip of the iceberg in India’s largest Fertiliser Import Scam that syphoned out thousands of crores as fertiliser subsidy each year funded by the  Indian taxpayer from 2007 to 2014. The key beneficiaries of the scam were not IFFCO’s MD US Awasthi or Indian Potash Ltd’s MD PS Gehlot, both under detention and being interrogated by the ED. These two 70 plus gentlemen were the key players who conducted the scam. The chief beneficiaries were the political masters during the UPA II  and the bureaucrats who helped IPL import bypassing state run importers MMTC and STC . The key beneficiaries were the then fertiliser minister the late Ram Vilas Paswan, the then secretary Fertiliser, the Finance Minister P.Chidambaram and the top bosses of the UPA . The probe into the scam that has  now began belatedly will hopefully expand its horizon in the coming months to snare the key beneficiaries. 



In October 2020, my book The Inside Story of Indian Banking was published by Rupa highlighting India’s biggest fertiliser import scam that lasted for a decade and amounted to anything between Rs 50,000 crore to Rs 100,000 crore. Use the Read Inside facility available in Amazon ( page 26 onwards) to know the full details of the scam and how it made India which was self sufficient in fertilisers in 2002 the world’s biggest importer in 2007. In July 2021 the ED filed cases against Awasthi, Gehlot and several others and investigations began unravelling the first layer of the multilayer scam. Let me assure you - This is just the beginning ……much more is in store that will be bared in the months to come.  Keep watching.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Reduce Regulatory Risk for Indian Business - Lower Import Duties, But Don’t Tax Steel Exports

    Why Restricting Wheat Exports to Curb Inflation is OK , But Taxing Steel Exports is Not 

The three month old Russia Ukraine war and the US sanctions thereafter  has disrupted global supply lines. It has raised the price of crude oil above the $100 per barrel mark since the last week of February 2022 ,  - the first time since 2014. It has also created uncertainty in the financial markets and spiked shipping rates, food and fertiliser  prices and the commodity markets resulting in high inflation and fear psychosis. 

                                                           T.V. Narendran  CEO Tata Steel 

RBI Governor Das had no way to see it coming and take steps to manage inflation, nor can the Union Govt be blamed for opening wheat exports only to clamp down on it the next day. The GOI has however agreed to undertake selective wheat exports on requests from needy nations that may actually help the Government to reduce its procurement at MSP prices for the PDS scheme and manage its fiscal deficit. 

Whereas controlling wheat and sugar exports to curb domestic food inflation was a positive step, the same cannot be said of the 15% export tax levied on steel  to cool domestic prices. T. V. Narendran, chief executive of Tata Steel India's biggest steelmaker said that such decisions could affect the steel making capacity output in India and long term goals of businesses.  Looking at the fact that Tata Steel has global experience and plans  to double its steel making capacity to 40 million tonnes per annum, the Government should not increase the regulatory risk for domestic businesses. They can very well reduce steel prices for the construction sector by permitting selective imports at lower import duties. Already UAE and Singapore is weaning away Indian tech startups who are facing regulatory challenges from GOI. Other nations could very well ask Tata Steels with an immaculate reputation to invest abroad where the tax regime is stable.


India has lost many businesses and tech startups due to its ad hoc taxation policies in the past. The right way of dealing with rising domestic steel prices is to lower import duties of competing products temporarily. When import duties are lowered or raised the regulatory risk is transferred to the foreign manufacturer. Taxing steel exports is counter productive as the risk is borne by the Indian manufacturer. That harms domestic industrial growth and hurts Make in India. The decision needs to be reversed before permanent damage is done to export competitiveness. 


Over 2700 foreign companies have closed operations in India since 2014 confirmed Mr Piyush Goyal in the Parliament last November. Businesses need regulatory stability and India has a very poor record due to which Indian businessmen move abroad. The Golden visa scheme of UAE is one such scheme that has been weaning Indian unicorns promising minimum regulatory interference.  “One of the key things Dubai has been successful in doing over the last 12 months is attracting the attention of the tech community from India. We have seen a huge appetite from that community across different stages- from series A, and all the way to a unicorn status. Founders and talent are considering Dubai as a tech hub. Talented people are sensitive and precarious. Keeping them happy is also part of the solution and not only the money”  says UAE Tourism Director Yousuf Lootah to ET  It is high time that India’s bureaucracy and political bosses also try to keep talented people happy and create conditions for long term growth.