Business

Covid-19 Fightback: Why A Small Thank You Note Is Due To Mukesh Ambani

Ambani
Snapshot
  • Why a small clap is due to Mukesh Ambani, whose Jio is a huge enabler in a situation of lockdown.

Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries is not somebody who attracts praise from the right quarters. As India’s richest man, and possibly one of the few who can manage the policy environment to his advantage, it is tough to say anything good about him. He attracts more envy and hate than almost any businessman in India.

And yet, it would be churlish to deny what he has done for the country — and himself, no doubt — in recent years. Two days ago, we heard that he has set up India’s first private sector dedicated Covid-19 hospital in Mumbai. He has also promised to ramp up production of face masks.

But that isn’t the reason to send him a small thank you note. As India’s richest man, it would have looked downright bad if he did nothing to help us in dealing with the pandemic.

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The reason why he needs to be lauded is Reliance Jio. Jio, along with other telecom and broadband players, undergirds our ability to maintain social distance by allowing us to operate beyond physical spaces.

We would be unable to stay in our homes or do much else if broadband and data services were not adequate to work from anywhere, to amuse ourselves on Amazon Prime or Netflix, or to buy our essentials without cash. Ambani’s telecom backbone is a key enabler along with others.

There is little doubt that India would not be the world’s largest consumer of bandwidth without Mukesh Ambani investing over Rs 3 lakh crore (and counting) in Reliance Jio and other retail businesses, crashing tariffs and expanding usage.

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Price wars may have damaged the industry’s finances, but without this massive expansion of demand for bandwidth and data, it is difficult to think that people would happily spend days in quarantine with nothing to do and physically being barred from moving around.

When, post-2014, few businessmen were willing to invest, Ambani was almost the only one making huge investments. He ran the company from being net debt-free to one that is heavily indebted.

As at the end of December 2019, Reliance Industries had gross debts of Rs 306,851 crore, but net debt was at half the level due to holdings of cash and cash equivalents of the order of Rs 153,719 crore.

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It would thus be fair to say that Ambani bet the farm and his own future in order to make Jio the market leader in India, led by data. Not for nothing is India the world’s largest per capita consumer of data.

India has become the world’s second largest user of the Internet after China with 560 million users. That’s a 100-fold jump in Internet usage between 2000 and 2019. India’s basic needs do not just revolve around roti, kapda aur makaan; it now includes bandwidth.

Last Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked Indians to clap for those fighting Covid-19, often at considerable risk to themselves. A small clap is also due to Ambani, whose Jio is a huge enabler in a situation of lockdown.

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(Note: I have no axe to grind while writing this note of praise for Mukesh Ambani and Reliance Industries. I am neither looking for a job with Reliance nor expecting any kind of special favours from him or his company. I have had my run-ins with Reliance and written critical pieces on his operations. But sometimes it is important to set our cynicism about the high and mighty aside and see their contributions for what they truly are. Ambani may be blameworthy for many things, but in boosting Digital India, he is among our heroes.)

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