Indian airline tycoon Ajay Singh had little expertise in healthcare however final November, because the nation was being pummelled by coronavirus, he out of the blue branched out into Covid-19 testing and later genomic sequencing.
Recognized for his shut connections with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister — he’s credited with coining the 2014 election slogan “This time, Modi’s authorities” — Singh launched SpiceHealth, vowing to make checks cheaper, sooner and extra out there.
Inside months, the group had prolonged its attain throughout the nation, even offering the testing in April for a number of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who joined the annual Kumbh Mela, the nation’s largest non secular gathering that was later seen as a superspreader occasion.
Singh’s speedy pivot from the lossmaking airline sector into healthcare underscores how a few of India’s largest tycoons have managed to prosper, even throughout the pandemic.
India is likely one of the nations worst hit by Covid-19, with greater than 28m instances and 335,000 lifeless, a lot of them occurring in its catastrophic second wave this yr.
Even earlier than the most recent outbreak, SpiceJet, by which Singh has a 60 per cent stake, was reeling from a nationwide lockdown final yr. The airline reported losses previously 4 quarters and has deferred the salaries of some employees for weeks.
In February, its auditors Walker Chandiok & Co mentioned there was “materials uncertainty” over SpiceJet’s capacity to proceed as a going concern. Its losses would have been even wider had it not included anticipated compensation from Boeing for the grounding of 737 Max plane.
“We will’t perceive how they’re staying alive,” mentioned an govt at a rival airline.
Jitender Bhargava, former govt director of Air India, praised Singh for his administration of SpiceJet, rescuing it seven years in the past when it was practically bankrupt and transferring shortly to snap up the plane of rival Jet Airways after it collapsed in 2019.
“He has completed nicely, however so far as the funds are involved, few airways have money reserves. How lengthy can one maintain with the second wave we’ve had?” mentioned Bhargava.
However business executives and analysts say that Singh is an opportunist who’s more likely to get by way of the turbulence.
“Indian aviation is drowning however Ajay will survive,” mentioned Neelam Mathews, an aviation analyst in New Delhi.
Tushar Srivastava, head of communications for SpiceJet and SpiceHealth, mentioned “no favours had been sought or offered” by the federal government to the group’s companies.
SpiceJet, beneath Singh’s management and administration, settled all of the money owed essential to revive the airline in 2014 and there was no monetary help or waivers offered by the federal government.
The variety of Covid-19 deaths in India
Singh doesn’t come from considered one of India’s established enterprise households, such because the Tatas, whose group spans sectors from metal to software program, or the Ambanis, the dynasty behind Reliance Industries, which dominates petrochemicals and retail.
Observers view Singh, who did his masters in enterprise administration at Cornell College, as a technocrat who has managed to straddle the worlds of enterprise and politics.
“An individual who can discuss to each side of the aisle, the political and the cash, is a uncommon animal,” mentioned Rohit Chandra, assistant professor of public coverage on the Indian Institute of Expertise Delhi.
Singh served as an in depth aide to Pramod Mahajan, the previous telecoms minister and fundraiser for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Celebration, who was murdered by his brother in 2006.
So shut is he to the ruling social gathering that BJP leaders usually seem at Singh’s occasions. Modi inaugurated the launch of SpiceJet’s seaplane service in October. A month later, Amit Shah, India’s dwelling affairs minister and considered one of Modi’s closest lieutenants, appeared on the opening of SpiceHealth’s first cell testing lab, a public-private partnership with the nation’s high medical analysis physique.
No matter his connections, Singh’s timing on the change to healthcare has proved fortuitous, coming earlier than this yr’s outbreak introduced air journey to a close to halt for a second time.
Run by his 24-year-old daughter Avani Singh, SpiceHealth, a separate firm from SpiceJet, operates 15 cell laboratories throughout the nation that every have a every day capability of three,000 checks. SpiceHealth has arrange a genomic sequencing facility in Delhi’s worldwide airport and Avani has spoken about transferring into vaccine procurement and distribution.
SpiceHealth was launched utilizing Singh’s private cash. The corporate began with speedy checks then branched into different merchandise, together with gross sales of “SpiceOxy”, a air flow gadget.
The Spice group of corporations transported 34m Covid-19 vaccines throughout the nation between January and April. Throughout the second wave, they airlifted hundreds of oxygen concentrators from Beijing, Nanjing, Wuhan and Hong Kong to India to alleviate a scarcity of the fuel.
Not content material along with his healthcare foray and apparently unfazed by SpiceJet’s issues, Singh has indicated his willingness to strengthen his dedication to India’s battered airline business.
In March, he was shortlisted as a bidder for Air India, the state-owned monolith that New Delhi has been making an attempt to privatise for years. If he succeeds, a purchaser is about to be introduced later this yr, Singh must tackle an eye-watering $3.3bn of debt.
“You’ve bought to offer it to Ajay Singh, one thing that may’t be denied to him is that he’s a man that seizes alternatives,” mentioned Bhargava.