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JUNE 3, 2007
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Trillion-Dollar Club
India has joined the elite club of 12 countries with GDPs in excess of a trillion dollars. The country's GDP crossed the trillion-dollar mark for the first time when the rupee appreciated to below Rs 41 against the greenback. According to a report by Swiss investment bank Credit Suisse, India's stock market capitalisation has risen to $944 billion (Rs 39,64,800 crore), which is also closing in on the trillion-dollar mark. An analysis of the Indian economy.

Minding The Monsoon
The India Meteorological Department's prediction that the total rainfall in the coming monsoon season is likely to be 95 per cent of the long-period average, with an error margin of 5 per cent, is good news for agriculture. But experts say there's a need to revamp monsoon prediction so that the region-wise and timing of rainfall patterns can be forecast much earlier. A look at the credibility of monsoon models and their impact on agriculture.
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Business Today,  May 20, 2007

Seeds of Dissent
The apex court nod to GM seed trials raises issues.
GM seeds: Trial's not yet over

Globally, the market for genetically modified (GM) seeds is estimated at Rs 25,215 crore. In India, where such seeds are seen with suspicion, it's barely worth Rs 697 crore a year, according to industry estimates. Also, the area under gm crops globally is 102 million hectares as against 3.8 million hectares in India. But thanks to the Supreme Court's May 8 ruling, that's about to change. "The doors that were locked till now have been opened," beams R.K. Sinha, Executive Director, All India Crop Biotechnology Association, a national lobby of companies engaged in agricultural biotechnology (mostly seed companies).

In September last year, the apex court had imposed an interim ban on field trials and subsequent marketing of gm seeds, following a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by activist Aruna Rodrigues. Having heard arguments from both gm seed manufacturers and the petitioner, the Supreme Court has decided that gm seed trials of previously approved seeds can go on, provided certain conditions are fulfilled. It's here where the problem lies.

The main concern relating to gm seeds is the release of potentially dangerous living organisms into the environment (unlike in pharmaceuticals, where experiments are conducted in a closed and controlled laboratory environment). What the court now says is that trials will be permitted in the case of seeds already approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), but such trials must meet certain conditions. Those include an increase in isolation distance of up to 200 metres between the fields with gm crop and those with ordinary crop; the establishment of a protocol for testing for contamination up to 0.01 per cent for neighbouring fields; the appointment of a dedicated crop scientist to oversee and ensure bio-safety in each case by ensuring that all conditions are met during the trials. "We are not worried about the conditions, since GEAC already has protocols, which will only have to be strengthened now," says Sinha.

Alas, if only things were that simple. Critics say that these stipulations don't mean much since the responsibility of ensuring compliance is with the companies themselves, and not some independent third party. Also, they point out that some desperate farmers may be willing to violate the field separation norms and thus expose other fields to unknown dangers.

At any rate, they say, various studies abroad have shown that even a 200-metre separation may not be enough to prevent cross-pollination. (Norms for crop separation differ from crop to crop, and the actual risk of cross-pollination would depend on several ground-level factors such as speed and direction of wind, among others.) "While we are happy that certain norms have been laid down, the very fact that they were needed, points to the lacuna in monitoring gm seed trials," says Divya Raghunandan, a campaign manager at Greenpeace. "There is little clarity on the mechanisms to implement the court norms."

Take, for instance, the case of a designated scientist to ensure bio-safety. How will any resulting liability be handled? Will the scientist be held responsible or will the seed company take the hit?

Meanwhile, all eyes are now on GEAC and its scheduled meeting on May 11, where it will take a call on further approvals. "Around 40 gm cotton hybrids are pending approval and all incorporate the already approved four genetic events (industry jargon for kind of genetic manipulation with the DNA)," says Sinha. Presuming the conditions do not apply to them (as large-scale trials are believed to be over), they could hit the market in the near future.

For the others where field trials are not yet complete or are yet to happen, the going may not be easy. For one, there are bound to be issues in adhering to the Supreme Court-set norms. For another, Aruna Rodgrigues, who filed the original PIL, intends to keep an eye on the trials. This battle is far from over.

ISRO's Global Gambit
It's betting on a high-tech, low-cost proposition.

Until late April, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had piggy-backed six small commercial satellites on larger home-grown remote sensing satellites to test the capabilities of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLV). But on a hot day in late April, that changed when the agency launched the Italian satellite, Agile, into an exact orbit of 550 km at an inclination of 2.5 degrees. With this launch, ISRO gained entry into a Rs 4,500-9,000-crore market for commercial satellite launches that hitherto had been restricted to the us, Russia, China, Ukraine and the European Space Agency. Having successfully put the Italian satellite in orbit, ISRO is now looking to expand its global mandate and says that it is in talks with many more countries to expand its commercial satellite launching services. "We have already launched six small satellites from Canada and Singapore and are in advanced negotiations with several Asian and European nations currently," says K.R. Sridhara Murthy, Executive Director, Antrix Corporation, ISRO's commercial arm.

According to estimates from ISRO, Antrix earned around Rs 500 crore in revenues last year, of which Rs 150 crore came from satellite services alone, compared to just Rs 31 crore the year before. Murthy and his team hope to eke out a fractional 2 per cent share in the market over the next few months and this share could go up as the payload (currently pegged at a maximum of around 1.5 tonne) also increases over the next few years. The USP: ISRO officials say that India normally offers a 30-35 per cent cost saving to its customers, without any compromise on safety. Luckily for Antrix, the global satellite launch business, stagnant for the last six years, is now booming.

Same Outfit, New Name
Flextronics Software rebrands and recharges.

What's in a name? It's business as usual and Mohapatra wants big deals

Three name changes, three sets of promoters, a change of management, mergers with six other companies… times have been fairly hectic at Aricent, formerly Flextronics Software Systems (and before that Hughes Software Systems), over the past three years. But now, according to its President Manoranjan 'Mao' Mohapatra, things are looking far steadier and Aricent, a name coined by a German employee from combining 'Arise' with 'Ascent', intends to grow rapidly.

Despite all the name changes and the new owners, American buy-out firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR), Aricent continues to be the same old company, sharply focussed on telecommunications software. Mao says that's perfectly fine. "In just one of the verticals we serve, the original equipment (OE) manufacturers of network infrastructure, equipment life cycles are getting shorter and the growth of the industry has meant more work for us. The potential for outsourced software in this sector alone is worth $12-13 billion," he says.

With revenues of $300 million, Aricent is relatively small, but Mohapatra believes that the company should cross $400 million by next year and top the $500-million mark within two years. His confidence stems from the fact that networks are growing in complexity and so are the applications required to run them as well the consumer devices. More importantly, he now wants to go after the larger and more lucrative contracts. "When you are a $100-million firm, customers would feel hesitant before giving you even a $10-million contract. As we go forward, I would like us to compete for $100-million contracts," says Mao.

But how's life under KKR? Mao says it is a "new experience" but business as usual, since the company has been able to maintain its earnings margins of around 26 per cent. "Other than quarterly board meetings to review work, KKR has no say in the day-to-day operations of the company," he says.

Over the next few years, Aricent hopes to dramatically increase its headcount, not just in India, but also in its newer centres (acquired during the Flextronics days) in China, South Africa, Ukraine and Mexico. "We believe that the Asian, Eastern European and Latin American markets will contribute the most to global telecommunications growth and that is why we have established our offices and development centres there," says Mohapatra. In fact, Mohapatra expects to grow the headcount in India from 5,000 to 12,000 within the next few years. "The strange thing is despite the new name, many people still join us because we are HSS," Mohapatra jokes.

The toughest job ahead according to him is to sell the Aricent brand. "We have to be known as a credible vendor across the world, able to execute large projects on-time. We do a fairly good job, but we do work in a competitive environment and we have to spread out further," he says. KKR would be happy to hear that.