THE ELECTRICAL ENGINEER

Naveen John (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Article on Naveen John, one of India’s best bicycle racers

Oil changed the face of the Middle East.

The first gusher was in 1908, in Persia, modern day Iran. In the decades that followed, as the oil industry brought wealth to this part of the word, it also altered lives thousands of kilometers away. The southern Indian state of Kerala, located across the Arabian Sea from oil-rich Middle East, contributed manpower to both the oil industry and the economy it fostered. By the 1970s, ` the Gulf’ had set in as a veritable changer of people’s fortunes. Although the trend has matured and likely begun to taper, Wikipedia estimates that by 2008, nearly 2.5 million Keralites were living in the Gulf mainly in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar.

Naveen John grew up in Kuwait; his parents worked there, even his grandfather had worked there. Among the smallest countries in the world, the flat, sandy Arabian Desert covers much of Kuwait. Its highest point is 1004 feet above sea level. Below the desert and its scorching surface temperature lay reserves of crude oil, the black gold that launched an explosion of automobiles worldwide. One hundred and ten years after the first gusher in Persia, Bengaluru – where we met – lay choked in coils of vehicular traffic. Across the Arabian Sea, economies in the Gulf had begun imagining futures less dependent on oil. And Naveen John; he was one of India’s top notch athletes in that greenest of vehicular options – cycling.

April 2012, Naveen (foreground) in Purdue Cycling Club colors, at his last USA collegiate cycling race. This was at the Marian University Criterium, Indianapolis (Photo: courtesy Naveen John / Photo credit: Zach Fisher)

Born 1986, Naveen passed out from The Indian School in Kuwait City. He shifted to Bengaluru and spent a year attending coaching classes to qualify for medical school. There were means available to get in – management quota, seats reserved for children of Non Resident Indians (NRI) etc. Naveen shunned that. Instead, he joined Purdue University in the US to study electrical engineering. When he started college, Naveen weighed 80-85 kilos; by his sophomore year, he was 90 kilos. Turning point was a Thanksgiving party he got invited to. Following dinner, he played a game of basketball with the host family and was roundly whipped. For the next three months, he ran five kilometers every day, shedding 20 kilos in the process. That phase also triggered a related habit – he kept a training log; it continues to this day. At college he joined an outfit called Habitat for Humanity. Its web page describes Purdue University Habitat for Humanity as “ a nonprofit affordable housing organization.’’ It partners with low income families to build simple, decent homes. A corner of the page had a clutch of photos, one of them showed people cycling. It was with this group that Naveen got introduced to distance cycling; it wasn’t intended, it was more a case of signing up for something and realizing later that the activity involved was cycling. It was a 120 mile-ride. He bought a MTB and went for the ride but couldn’t complete it. However the bug had bitten him.

At the time of writing, the Purdue University Cycling Club was still compiling its history. It was founded in late 1982; the prime mover was Mike Cent. He was a runner. In his first semester at college, he injured his Achilles tendon. His roommate Dominic, who was of Italian descent, was a bicycle racing enthusiast. Dominic kept no cycle on campus. “ He just enjoyed the racing culture that is so prevalent in Italian society,’’ Mike notes in a write-up available on the club’s webpage. Dominic got Mike excited about cycling; as it turned out, cycling was also good exercise for strained Achilles tendon.  Along the way, Mike bought a Schwinn Super Le Tour and gained followers. In November 1982, the club officially came into existence. Naveen joined the Purdue University Cycling Club. He traded his MTB for a road bike and started riding with the club every weekend. Cycling improved his fitness levels. He also liked trail running and during his stay in the US, managed to go up 14 of Colorado’s 53 `fourteeners,’ mountains exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation. But he stayed with cycling. According to Naveen, the credit for that goes to the Purdue University Cycling Club.

June 2012, Naveen at the Bangalore Bicycle Championships, his first race in Bengaluru. He joined KYNKYNY by the end of that week (Photo: courtesy Naveen John / Photo credit: The Hungry Tramp)

In 2012 Naveen completed his course in electrical engineering. He followed it with an internship. Then he moved back to Bengaluru. The move, prompted by the desire “ to do something satisfying’’ was also driven by a couple of other factors. To begin with, as he trained regularly with the Purdue University Cycling Club there was curiosity in the group if Naveen could one day win at the national level in India. The idea engaged Naveen and as he dwelt on it, he felt that it was achievable. Given his newfound interest in cycling and wanting to sustain it, he had also reached out to Bengaluru’s KYNKYNY Sports Club; they had a racing team. He wrote to Venketesh Shivarama of Bengaluru’s Wheel Sports, who is a nodal person for cycling in the city. Venketesh had in turn put Naveen in contact with Vivek Radhakrishnan; both Venketesh and Vivek were involved with KYNKYNY. Unlike overseas, the Indian environment is both old and trapped in the rat race-paradigm of congested, thickly populated country. Anyone trying new things has to wade through well-entrenched skepticism and inertia. It takes a toll. Naveen sensed some exhaustion and pessimism in the feedback he was getting about potentially moving back to India. But he had confidence in Bengaluru’s emergent racing season; he knew that folks like Venketesh and Vivek had done pioneering work in this regard. Upon moving back to Bengaluru, Naveen plunged into bicycle racing.

“ I returned to India in July 2012. I remember, I reached Bengaluru on a Friday and my first race was scheduled for Sunday. On Saturday I went for the recce and then raced the very next day,’’ Naveen said. Having raced before in the US, he had asked the race organizers if he could be put in the elite category. However nobody knew him as cyclist or racer. So they told him that he would have to start in Category 2. Naveen won that race, which was part of the Bangalore Bicycle Championship (BBCH). He quickly made an impression. Within 3-4 days he was part of the KYNKYNY team and a week after the race, he was in the organizing committee of BBCH. Little over three months later, he was in an unreserved compartment on a train headed to Muzaffarpur in Bihar for the national championship. With him were other members of the Karnataka cycling team, most of them from KYNKYNY. “ I wanted to get a taste of how Indian teams have traditionally traveled to participate in competitions,’’ Naveen said about that stint in the train, adding such travel is definitely not ideal for anyone hoping to perform at a high level in sports. In 2012, he placed fourth in the road race at the nationals. In 2013, he was fourth in time trial; he also supported his friend in the road race helping him finish second. In 2014, Naveen won the time trial. It was his first national title and the first for KYNKYNY; Naveen now represented the club. By 2017, he won three of the elite medals on offer.

Naveen stays busy during recovery days, mid-season breaks and off season, by taking the opportunity to get hands-on with the athletes he works with. This scene is from the time he was running race support at Nandi Epic for a teammate and athlete he used to coach (Photo courtesy: Naveen John / Photo credit: Mohammed Azharuddin)

Talking to those who worked with Naveen or cycled with him, it becomes pretty clear that what sets him apart is the more rounded package he is, compared to regular Indian athlete. A country of economic and social inequalities with an education system that scarcely tries to know its students or bridge disparities, talent in Indian sports is typically a case of having some dominant strength but not all that is required to progress as athlete. Much time is lost battling shortfalls in self and system. Many lose despite their athletic ability. Naveen is different. He is Indian with family from Kerala but grew up in Kuwait and studied in US; so much so that he jokes about not knowing what he actually is. Point is – he grew up free of India’s ground level pitfalls. Post schooling, he was in Bengaluru briefly but soon shifted to the US, home to a robust university education system that respects and values ability in sport. Add to it the educational system he was put through, the college campus he was at and the engineering course he finished – you are not talking of the average Indian athlete here. He brings to bear on cycling, a perspective that spans knowledge of self, knowledge of sport and ability to figure out how to improve.

Venketesh Shivarama likely sensed this early when Naveen exchanged mails with him before shifting to Bengaluru. “He is an excellent cyclist. Naveen started out at the basic racing level in the US. When he wanted to move back to India, he sent me a mail. I told him to come to Bengaluru. He is technically strong, well read and motivated. From 2005 onward, Bengaluru had been taking steps – baby steps – in bicycle racing. With Naveen around, the pace of that evolution picked up,’’ Venketesh said. Venketeswara Rao Navanasi aka Bikey Venky is a Bengaluru based-cyclist who has cycled with Naveen. “ Naveen is methodical. He doesn’t think short term. He plans and executes long term. He emphasizes the importance of having a coach and a plan that is specific to achieve your goals,’’ Venky said. Both men also pointed to another quality in Naveen – he helps fellow cyclists and contributes back to the cycling community.

Naveen en route to his third national title in the ITT (Photo: courtesy Naveen John / Photo credit: Chenthil Mohan)

Soon after return to India, Naveen chose to compete in the time trial. It provides insight into how Naveen’s mind works. An individual time trial (ITT) sees cyclist race against the clock on flat or rolling terrain. There are also track-based time trials and team time trials (TTT).  Naveen chose the time trial to start with because “ variables are significantly less’’ in that discipline. Eliminate variables; your ability has better chance to reach you to your goal. Time trial also put the spotlight on him as an individual athlete, something required if what you are attempting is to break into a community and gain acceptance in it. But his obsession with focus doesn’t end there. He compares the run up to a national championship or any such elite event, to a Mars Mission. “ That’s how the way to these championships must be treated. You build a cocoon around yourself and your teammates. Now I know how to do that,’’ he said. If you ruminate on it, factoring in the naysayers and booby traps lurking in the Indian environment, the merit in that cocooned approach becomes visible. He is also clear that Indian athletes need to work harder. Compared within same age category and discipline, an Indian cyclist does not train as hard as his European or American counterpart. Uniquely, some of the dilution is visible even in the parameter of sport as followed in India. Performance cycling typically straddles four disciplines – individual time trial, team time trial, road race and criterium (a short form of the road race). In India, the road race is 120-140 km long. Internationally, road races are longer; at the Asian championships, 170 km is minimum stipulated distance.

Naveen became India’s first cyclist to ride on a professional team when he got the opportunity to ride for State of Matter / MAAP. The six months he worked with them made him realize the gap that existed between the work rates of Indian athletes, their commitment levels and the same overseas (Photo: courtesy Naveen John / Photo credit: Kirsty Baxter)

According to Naveen, two things are critical to be a top notch cyclist – work rate and consistency. Work rate basically refers to mileage accumulated by the end of the year. It also includes other aspects pertaining to the totality of being an athlete – rest, recovery protocols, fundraising, sponsor activation responsibilities, taking on support gigs etc. Arguably, Naveen started late in the sport. At age 31, in 2017, he became the first Indian to win both ITT and road race at the nationals. He used to train 20-22 hours per week. Overseas, athletes trained up to 30 hours. Following the 2017 nationals, Naveen had his first block of 30 hours-training. “ Two things happened – I didn’t die; I did better in terms of performance,’’ he said. Next goal is 32 hours. “ There is no short cut for hard work. All that Indian cyclists assume is holding them back – none of that is correct. It is work rate that holds us back. You have to live for improving work rate. At one time my place of residence in Bengaluru was hindering it. I solved it at one stroke,’’ Naveen said. When Bengaluru started filling up with traffic and space for cycling declined within the city, Naveen who was staying at Sarjapur, didn’t waste time complaining. He simply shifted to Devanahalli on the outskirts. The main thing he required to sort out for this was find a way to pay the rent. He did that by coaching more to bridge the deficit. The move to Devanahalli not only brought him closer to Nandi Hills, which is a favorite with runners and cyclists to train at, it also changed his fortunes as an athlete with more time and space for good quality training. Occasionally, Naveen invites young athletes he works with to come over for intensive training camps. “ You won’t hear words like Olympics and Tour de France from me because I know what it takes to compete at those levels. I am aware of only the next step I should take,’’ Naveen said.

In 2016, a friend who was documenting Naveen’s journey in photos, asked him: what next? Naveen struggled for a proper answer. He knew that if you have been an amateur racer for long, the obvious thing to do next is to become professional. So he blurted out that fantasy – he wanted to become a professional cyclist and do so outside India. Too this end, he did a lot of cold emailing; he aimed for Division Three on the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) website. Cam Whitting, who runs cyclingiq.com, helped. Naveen managed to connect with a couple of teams from Australia, eventually signing up with a team called: State of Matter / MAAP. It was previously known as Charter Mason Giant Racing. However there were some problems. He struggled to raise funds for the Australian foray; he was also delayed in reaching Australia. Naveen’s contract was from January 2016 to December 2016. Since he was going to race with a cycling team, he applied for a sports visa. As it turned out, aside probably from cricketers, not many athletes from India had applied for a sports visa to Australia after the Sydney Olympics of 2000. That caused delay. Reaching Australia with some of the major races already over, Naveen could participate in only amateur races in the domestic circuit. Even that was an experience for the field was strong. Naveen stayed part of the team roster for 2016. State of Matter was later disbanded. But a big race did happen for Naveen that year.

February 2017, Naveen at the Bahrain International F1 Circuit for the Asian Cycling Championships (Photo: courtesy Naveen John / Photo credit: Chenthil Mohan)

October 2016, Naveen at the world championships ITT in Doha, Qatar (Photo: courtesy Naveen John / Photo credit: Chenthil Mohan)

In October 2016, he and fellow Indian cyclist Arvind Panwar, took part in the UCI World Championship held in Doha; Naveen participated in ITT. He finished 55 in the competition (Arvind finished 61), seven and half minutes behind the winner, Tony Martin of Germany. Next year, Naveen participated in the Asian Cycling Championship held in Bahrain. There, in the ITT, he placed thirteenth in a field of twenty separated by a gap of five and a half minutes from the winner. Naveen and Arvind then participated in the road race and finished with the main peloton, the first time India was doing so in some seven years.

At the 2018 Asian Cycling Championships in Naypyidaw, Myanmar (Photo: courtesy Naveen John / Photo credit: Ben Joseph)

In early 2018, they were back at the Asian Cycling Championship; this time held at Naypyidaw, the new capital of Myanmar, a city with roads as wide and flat as aircraft runways. Here, Naveen moved up to tenth position in ITT with a gap of three and a half minutes separating him from the winner. Naveen and Arvind performed better in the road race too. According to Naveen, a factor influencing the strength of national squads is how much, their athletes race with private cycling teams. Cycling is expensive. Any national federation would be challenged to create the hours of top quality cycling required to shape champion cyclists. The way out is to join private teams and train and race with them. Japan, Kazakhstan and Chinese Taipei are usually the strongest squads at Asian championships. Although it is not very active in the private racing scene, Iran also makes the cut. Naveen’s most significant foray – one that holds much meaning for Indian cycling – was perhaps something else.

Naveen momentarily riding near the front at the Oudenberg kermesse in Belgium. He was guest riding for the Kingsnorth International Wheelers, a Belgium-based British-registered club team that offered a roster spot for riders traveling in from all over the world for a taste of proper Belgian bike racing (Photo: courtesy Naveen John / Photo credit: Heidi Lanoo)

Richard Moore is a fine author, who has brought alive, stories from athletics and cycling. Here’s the opening paragraph from one of his essays in the 2014 book Etape: The French call it pave’. It sounds exotic and benign – it could be a succulent cut of beef – but for cyclists it has a different meaning. It is the pave’ that defines Paris-Roubaix, the ` Hell of the North’ one-day classic that includes twenty odd sections of cobbles, or pave’; hell because these cobbles are not the small stones polished by thousands of cars in a city, but large, uneven boulders planted in mud, arranged to run in narrow strips across the plains and fields of northern France and Belgium. Cut to Bengaluru’s MG Road and the café Naveen and this author were at, end-February 2018. Some distance from where we sat, running parallel to MG Road, was Church Street. It was in the final stages of being refurbished into a quaint road of interlocking tiles that reminded of Europe’s cobblestone-streets. Cobblestones provide a rough, bumpy surface for cycling but they are part of the ambience making up a kermesse. The kermesse is a form of Dutch bicycle race currently most popular in Belgium, especially the northern Flanders region. Europe is the beating heart of bicycle racing. Within Europe, nations like France, Belgium and Netherlands represent the home of cycling culture. In Bengaluru, KYNKYNY, after a phase of being supported by the reputed American bicycle brand: Specialized, began disbanding in 2015. “ KYNKYNY aspired to be the first Division Three team from India. It was ahead of its times. We were unfortunate in that we didn’t have 12 strong riders, who were consistently good enough for that journey along with related support,’’ Naveen said. As the team disbanded it found in its possession a small cachet of funds. That money opened prospects to attempt races overseas. Naveen’s research took him to the writings of Ed Hood who had documented accounts of British racers cutting their teeth in continental racing and progressing to the top echelons of the sport. It mentioned the importance of racing in continental Europe, in shaping cyclist’s reputation. In continental Europe, Belgian cycling was noted for speed and power, France for distance and challenging terrain.

On the banks of the Schelde canal in Oudenaarde, Flanders, Belgium. Cyclists from all over the world come to continental Europe to get a hammering. According to Neveen, his biggest learning was that Belgians aren’t born to be great bike racers, rather it is the systems and the `economy of the sport’ – which is a well oiled machine – that keeps churning out great cyclists. He believes that the future of Indian cycling passes through Belgium (Photo: courtesy Naveen John / Photo credit: Chenthil Mohan)

Naveen was at that time in good form. After winning the ITT at the 2014 nationals he had followed it up with a win at the 2015 National Games. There was also the fact that – amazing as it sounds – it cost less to race in Belgium than in India. Such is the disparity in economic efficiency as measured in terms of what all it costs to race. In 2015, four Indians – Naveen among them – spent 60 days in Belgium; altogether and across all of them, they participated in 20 races. Naveen managed to finish at four races. The best position he got was twentieth, secured in the last event he raced at. “ The experience was an eye opener,’’ he said. It showed that the future for Indian cyclists was not to wait for the sport’s systems to emerge in India but to leverage the systems already existing outside India. In 2017, seven cyclists from India traveled to Belgium for another go at races there. This time Naveen participated in 22 races; he finished 21 and crashed at one. “ The average amateur kermesse is faster than the Indian nationals. The distances are also longer. Indian courses are typically straight. Over there, you tackle bumpy, uneven roads. You don’t complain. Cobblestones are an integral part of Belgian racing. There are entire races built around it,’’ Naveen said. Visiting Belgium and racing there is now set to be an annual affair. It is the bedrock of activities planned around Ciclo Team Racing, Naveen’s new team, which is backed by 2go Activewear, TI Cycles and Absolute.

May 2017, at a training camp called Ciclo Academy that Ciclo Team Racing and Naveen organized at Nandi Hills, Bengaluru (Photo: courtesy Naveen John / Photo credit: Ciclo Cafe)

It has been an intense trip so far for electrical engineer schooled in Kuwait, attending college in the US and cycling in India. “ The Purdue Cycling Club was a small nurturing environment. It was all about keeping people involved long enough to help them find out what they can do. Small clubs with seniors, mentors, good coaches, an informal setting – that is the ideal incubator for talent,’’ Naveen said looking back to where and how his tryst with cycling began. His background as engineer has also helped in the journey – he is able to take challenges apart into smaller tasks, analyze them and attempt a solution. Besides competing, Naveen also coaches. A term he used for the work he saw himself doing in Indian cycling was – human engineering. It referred to the contribution he wished to make towards building the people and systems that will be part of the sport five to ten years from now. For now, it is all electric enough to keep engineer glued to cycling.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)     

A SKIING COURSE WITH A DIFFERENCE

From the PNSMTI basic skiing course (Photo: courtesy Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu)

The Munsyari based-Pandit Nain Singh Surveyor Mountaineering Training Institute (PNSMTI), the country’s youngest institute of its sort has just wrapped up its basic course in skiing for the year. This was the third such course for the institute; it had previously held basic skiing courses in 2016 and 2017.

Commissioned on October 20, 2015 (the birth anniversary of Pandit Nain Singh Rawat), PNSMTI is still in its early days. It falls under the Sports Department of the Government of Uttarakhand. PNSMTI doesn’t have a proper campus yet but has commenced work with an annual skiing course. The institute is also free to organize / host outdoor management programs and leadership programs for interested companies.

From the PNSMTI basic skiing course (Photo: courtesy Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu)

“ Going ahead, we would like to have a bigger portfolio of courses,’’ Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu, Officer on Special Duty (OSD), PNSMTI, said. Reena is an accomplished trekker and mountaineer, who is also the first Indian woman to ski to the South Pole. Skiing is a subject close to her heart. Pandit Nain Singh Rawat, in whose memory the institute was established, is among India’s greatest explorers of the Himalaya (For more on Pandit Nain Singh please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2014/06/23/walking-with-nain-singh/ ). He hailed from Johar valley near Munsyari, in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon region.

From the PNSMTI basic skiing course (Photo: courtesy Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu)

PNSMTI’s skiing course accepts 30 students. The course is for two weeks and is held in February. The course fee is Rs 12,000; it is subsidized by the state’s sports department. The fee covers all costs including cost of training, equipment, boarding and lodging. Students come from Uttarakhand and other states. According to Reena, what makes the PNSMTI course unique is the ski slope they use. Located on Khalia Top near Munsyari, the slope is at an elevation of 11,500 feet making it among the highest ski slopes in the country that a student can hope to get trained at. “ The view from Khalia Top is spectacular. You can see Nanda Devi and its surrounding peaks, the Panchchuli range and other peaks of the Johar region,’’ Reena said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

BUDGET 2018-2019 AND SPORTS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Every year in India, the Finance Minister presents the Union Budget in Parliament. This lengthy article explores the impact of the 2018-2019 budget on activities relevant to this blog like running, rock climbing, mountaineering and cycling. Not to mention sailing and kayaking as viewed through the tax man’s lens. The article seeks to look beyond the obvious, with examples. Will raising import tariffs automatically trigger manufacturing at home? While that does have some effect, there are other steps too which are needed to localize production meaningfully, especially if local manufacturing is to stay relevant to the performance segment in sports. 

The 2018-2019 Union Budget’s treatment of sports was a mixed bag. On the one hand, the centralized allotment of funds to the Sports Ministry increased significantly by Rs 258.2 crore to Rs 2196.36 crore. On the other hand, revision of import duty ensured price rise for a variety of imported sports equipment, including running shoes. In sports like kayaking, requests to re-examine existing duty rates went unaddressed.

A sting at retail level

February 1, around noon, the first news flash appeared of potential price rise in sports goods. Are you sure? Just days ago, the government was talking of encouraging sports… – that was the reaction of a Mumbai based-retailer of climbing and outdoor equipment. A few days later, the budget’s fine-print showed price rise in much of what he retailed. Climbing hardware and climbing shoes are almost wholly imported. The relevant customs duty had doubled from 10 per cent to 20 per cent. In footwear there seemed no exception made for sports shoes. A week after the budget, the shop’s owners were still waiting for a picture, clear in every respect. At shop level, clarity takes time to unravel.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For most of us, running is synonymous with freedom. It takes little to run. The growth of competition, including at amateur level, has changed that. Today, running is an industry with events, products and services available for a price. It is as corporate as your workplace; you chase goals, network, market, eliminate errors, advance your prospects, achieve – you do everything pretty much the same Sun Tzu-way you function in office. Our tendencies notwithstanding, running remains still an activity with health benefits and for those who care, a private ecosystem of self and universe. Before the latest budget, a pair of good running shoes cost anywhere between Rs 6000-10,000. The day following the budget, one newspaper picked a distinctly expensive model of running shoes and forecast an addition of Rs 2000 to its price tag. The eventual price was around Rs 17,000. Fact is, sale price of Rs 6000-10,000 is whammy enough. Whether you should use shoes for running or not, will remain a debate. For those who use shoes, finding the right shoe and sticking with it, is a matter of importance. Even runners from financially challenged backdrops, when they are able to afford shoes or access a pair, pick a good brand. As per a recent newspaper report, India’s per capita income in real terms (2011-12 prices) for 2017-18, was projected to be Rs 86,660. That would make it Rs 7221.67 per month. Juxtapose on that, Rs 6000-10,000 for a pair of running shoes! If you go purely by the import duties altered (overlooking how companies plan their sourcing), the 2018-2019 budget has made imported running shoes costlier still. Gym equipment strangely found soft corner as regards customs duty although its applicable domestic tax rate (GST) is high. As product category, gym equipment is more in the realm of institutional purchase than retail. In contrast, running shoes are widely bought.

Footwear is a focus segment under the government’s `Make in India’ program. In his speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley mentioned that the duty adjustment in question was done to encourage local manufacturing in a range of products, footwear being one. According to data on statista.com, the world produced 23 billion pairs of footwear in 2016. The top four manufacturing countries were China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia – in that order, with China leading by a hefty margin. If you go to a store in Mumbai that sells running shoes and check models for the ` Made in India’ tag, you will typically find it on cheaper models not associated with high performance. On the other hand, China, Vietnam and Indonesia frequently show up in tags from the performance segment. Clearly there are reasons best known to shoe companies, why this is so.

Organization and manufacturing culture

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

This blog couldn’t get a response from the foreign shoe giants dominating the market for running shoes. However, if you track published news reports, a narrative unravels of what happened in the footwear industry. Given its massive population – soon to be the world’s biggest – India is among the world’s biggest markets for footwear. According to a study by Technopak Advisors, cited in the media, the domestic footwear market is growing at 12 per cent per annum; it is expected to vault from $ 6 billion   in 2014 to $ 11.5 billion by 2020. A big share of this industry is unorganized; 80-85 per cent of players fall in micro, small and medium enterprise categories. Data published alongside some of these news reports show that 40 per cent of industry sales came from modern retail while 60 per cent came through unorganized retail. Synthetic footwear constituted 80 per cent of sales, leather accounted for 20 per cent. The Indian footwear industry is known for its strength in leather craftsmanship. According to some in the business of making running shoes that this blog spoke to, in as much as India is strong in leather craftsmanship, it has catching up to do in other areas, including ability to produce real performance shoes for use in sports. Inadequacies surface depending on how truly performance oriented you want the shoe you make, to be. If you are aiming high, the Indian manufacturing environment falls short. For example, some of the types of rubber used in the soles of shoes meant for running and found in models overseas, are not yet available here. If your wish, as Indian brand, is to make a product that matches a good foreign running shoe, you end up either importing the whole shoe under your brand or importing the raw materials should you have manufacturing facility here. The market for sports shoes and performance shoes therein are still evolving in India. Consequently the manufacturing ecosystem for these products is also not highly developed. Depending on what type of shoe they wish to make, Indian manufacturers are forced to look overseas. Abroad (in the case of footwear, it is mainly China and South East Asia), the required raw materials are available as are well-appointed factories with skilled manpower, not to mention – the existence of well entrenched manufacturing culture.

It would seem the tariff revision of the 2018-2019 budget coincided with flux already underway in the Indian footwear sector. In the run up to GST, the industry reportedly sought five per cent tax for its products. At least one news report said, the Council for Footwear Leather and Accessories (CFLA) wanted shoe imports from China discouraged as these shipments had come to command “ over 20 per cent of the market by value.’’ When GST was implemented in 2017, the effective tax rate in footwear was five percent for shoes costing not more than Rs 500 a pair and 18 percent for the rest. GST is expected to be a game changer for Indian industry. The footwear industry was unhappy with the polarized tax rates of five per cent and 18 per cent. Revisions to GST announced in November 2017, brought no relief for footwear. If you go through media reports quoting footwear industry officials from mid-2017 onward, you will also find another aspect mentioned – the 18 per cent rate would be tough for those making shoes in the price range of Rs 500-1000. These points illustrate the industry backdrop against which, customs duty on imported footwear increased to 20 per cent in the 2018-2019 budget. Besides discouraging imports from China as sought, the move potentially opens up possibilities for domestic manufacturers to tap any tariff inspired-drive to manufacture locally; it also allows existing local players to grab volume in the middle segments of the market using cosmetic additions to what technologies they already possess. To note: the middle segment is not the performance segment. “ Everything therefore depends on what specific product you wish to make; how high you are aiming,’’ one manufacturer this blog spoke to, said.

Perhaps the most confusing part of the shoe story was the situation at retail stores selling imported running shoes. Two weeks after the budget, we visited a couple of stores at a leading mall. None of them knew of the customs duty hike. They spoke of prices revised after GST for the ongoing season, even prices reduced in the recent past. “ Maybe the impact of duty revision will show up in the next season when fresh stocks arrive,’’ one shop assistant speculated. But as of mid-February 2018, there is a caveat we should consider before reaching any simplistic conclusion on the budget’s impact on running shoes. January 26, 2018 was notable; a host of ASEAN heads of state attended India’s Republic Day parade. Almost fifteen years earlier, in October 2003, the initial framework for the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area (AIFTA) was signed. The final agreement was signed in August 2009 and the free trade area became effective in January 2010. Major exporters of footwear – including running shoes – like Vietnam and Indonesia, are members of ASEAN. At least one news report said that those from the Indian footwear industry requiring still to import, hoped that AIFTA would provide an alternative, cost effective route to the barrier of 20 per cent customs duty imposed by the 2018-2019 budget. Till these options play out, it is probably too early to speculate about prices of running shoes. A more relevant question is whether altering customs duty for protection, really triggers domestic manufacturing and if so, what the nature of that manufacturing is. The pattern of domestic manufacturing industry chasing volume and continuing to lag in technology was witnessed earlier in another budget, which tampered with customs duty.

Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

The example of cycling and 2012 budget

The 2018-2019 budget and its impact on running shoes, brought memories of a budget tabled by Pranab Mukherjee in 2012, wherein the import duty for bicycles and bicycle parts was hiked. That was the first budget-induced jolt to cycling since the arrival of a slew of foreign brands revitalized Indian cycling. Six years after that budget, there has been change. Indian bicycle manufacturers have more models sporting better specs, in price brackets leading up to the performance category (also called super premium). This is where the market’s volumes are for now and into the near future. Two other aspects are visible alongside. Performance models continue to remain the domain of imported brands. It takes a combination of factors – ranging from a cycling culture that pushes itself to manufacturing that pushes itself – to develop performance DNA. That is a choice independent of manufacturing economics and love for tariff driven-protectionism; it is a commitment. Second, within the world of bicycle manufacturing, technologies relevant for the performance category are still not accessible in India or when accessible, not cost competent. New Indian bicycle brands – from the driven lot that is – do their own product designing but make their aluminum-bicycle frames overseas. The larger companies with big brands to protect are comparatively opaque. How much of their aluminum frames in the costlier models are made in India, how much is sourced from abroad – we have little idea of that.

Before the foreign brands entered, India was an all-steel bicycle market. Talk in the trade is that aluminum bicycle frames are still a matter of import. Butting and well finished welding – these are the two main challenges while fabricating aluminum bicycle frames. Butting requires you to hollow out aluminum tubes such that they are structurally strong at critical points even as they are light overall. This is done through the creation of varying wall thickness within the tube. Done improperly (aluminum is tricky material to work with), a tube can develop weak spots. You can cover up your deficiency by not pushing the limits in butting and retaining a heavy tube, which in turn makes for heavy frame. Word on the street is that Indian manufacturers are also hampered by their inability to do aluminum-butting and welding cost effectively at home. Result – aluminum frames continue to be imported. In the global bicycle industry, aluminum frames are a notch above steel. Stacked above aluminum are frame technologies using materials like titanium and carbon fiber. In the aftermath of the 2012 budget, bicycle prices rose, there was alteration of specs to suit price points – all this happened; in other words a giant ripple triggered, takes time on water to play itself out and strike fresh equilibrium. What improved in the process were products in the market’s middle – the volume category or what is called mass premium segment. As for performance products; what the shoe manufacturer said stays true across product categories: if you are customer, it depends on what you are looking for; if you are manufacturer, it depends on what you wish to make. This is where we stand in bicycles the budget of 2012 notwithstanding.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

A sample of the new entrants – who are they, what are they like?

New industry players are different from the earlier lot. They don’t necessarily hail from industry. Some have a background in sports; others are deeply interested in the activities they cater to.

According to Wikipedia, Siddharth Suchde was once ranked number 39 in the world, the second highest ranked squash player from India. He grew up in India, Scotland and Switzerland and went on to attend Harvard University. The year he graduated from Harvard, Siddharth was national champion in college level squash in the US. In 2016, sometime after he retired from professional squash and commenced an e-commerce company, Siddharth started a private label in performance gear focused on serious athletes. It is called Azani Sports. In footwear, the company makes running shoes. Siddharth had no previous knowledge of footwear manufacturing. Entering performance shoes straightaway is a risky gamble; you can make or break your reputation. But Siddharth said that as an athlete, exploring ways to improve is what he has done all along. He has cut up shoes, taken them apart to see what goes into making them. He can talk of grades of rubber, raw materials for running shoes and manufacturing processes. His wish is to offer shoes that perform really well at reasonable price. So far, Azani has done its own designing and got the shoes made in Vietnam and China. They test the shoes in India and abroad. Post 2018-2019 budget, import duty for raw materials relevant to Azani’s manufacture rose by five per cent while fully built shoes were candidate for customs duty of 20 per cent. On the bright side, in a few months’ time, the company’s factory will be commissioned in Bengaluru, Siddharth said.

For a couple of years now, an engaging story in cycling has been Pune based-Psynyde Bikes. Founded by cycling enthusiasts, who grew up in the era of well entrenched Indian manufacturers of steel cycles and limited product portfolio, they pushed their rides to their limits, took them apart and modified them – till, they began designing and building custom bikes themselves. Soon they were ready to risk the numbers game. Psynyde designs in India, builds overseas and ships the products back for sale in the domestic market. It is a fledgling company with two factory built-models and different finish levels thereof. As products like running shoes and climbing gear took a hit in the 2018-2019 budget, cycling was breathing free. “ Bicycles seem to have been spared in this budget,’’ the country head of a leading foreign bicycle brand, said.

Indigenous manufacturing of climbing and outdoor gear has always been a tricky business because safety is critical in this line of sport. Climbing equipment in particular has to be tested and certified to international norms. Few knew of Gipfel till its crash mats lined the floor at the 2016 and 2017 World Cups in bouldering held in Navi Mumbai. The company with factory in Meerut now makes a range of products including climbing harness. When the 2018 budget rolled out, Gipfel was sitting pretty. Aapar Mahajan, CEO, said that up to 95 percent of Gipfel’s products are locally made. He said the budget hadn’t changed duty rates for imported raw materials Gipfel used. Asked about GST, he said, “ our sales have increased from last year but that is probably because we are a new company and constantly introducing new products. We are not sure if the sales would have increased faster if GST was lower. It is true that GST was 28 percent in July for most of our items and we did experience a slow momentum initially but it helped after GST was revised to 18 percent. I still wish that GST was 12 percent like in many other conventional sports equipment such as cricket because 18 percent is too high for this industry. Some sports equipment is taxed at 12 percent and the rest at 18 percent. This is not so motivating.’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Elements important for change that budgets overlook

February 2018; Shailesh Krishna was in Mumbai to explore the possibilities of pursuing a PhD in product design / industrial design (human powered mobility). He started out studying automobile engineering. By the time he finished his engineering course, he had lost his admiration for IC engine-based transport (in fact, while studying engineering he conceived the blue print of “ a new kind of IC engine, which would leave behind many of the course properties of existing technology’’). He wanted to be a designer in the transport space but could see nothing heart-warming in the prevailing state of Indian roads. Where people once walked comfortably, there was an explosion of vehicles, terrible congestion and serious pollution. Even if you shift to clean technologies, you still won’t address traffic congestion. Further, there was something deeply disturbing about the idea of traveling in caged private space within a closely knit social fabric that is city. As the model perpetuates itself, insularity takes hold. On the other hand, cycling is exposed to world and universe. “ Bicycles work as a positive force in society. When I ride, my bicycle gives me freedom, it also connects me with people,’’ Shailesh said.

His next academic stop after engineering was the MIT Institute of Design in Pune. There, he started a cycling club called Ridea and when the time came for his final year project, he chose to work with TI Cycles. The company was planning to roll out a new road bike (it would debut under the Montra brand) and Shailesh contributed much to the program; he addressed aspects like bike geometry and ergonomic fit. He rode various models from international manufacturers, used as benchmark, over long distances to experience their ride firsthand. He cycled so from Chennai to Puducherry and from Chennai to Sriharikotta. He also put in a brief stint as business development manager covering markets in western India. Moving around at ground level, he saw how retailers of bicycles paid little attention to sizing bicycles properly to riders, he saw how badly designed many of the bicycles in the Indian market were. Even children’s bikes weren’t spared – some of the designs therein could potentially hurt riders. Interested more in making dealers understand the products they sold and not cut out to drive sales volume, it wasn’t long before Shailesh realized he wasn’t the man to grow business, do marketing or sell. His interest was in “ driving ethical design.’’

Shailesh has high regard for TI Cycles. But he does not let that interfere with his views on how design is treated in India. If you think about it, all change starts with design. To design, you must have the ability to comprehend multiple requirements; for instance, there’s what the customer seeks, there’s what engineering can do, there’s how much capital will be assigned, there’s the present as starting point and product lifecycle extending into the future (you need to have a sense of how trends may evolve) and then, there’s the challenge of how you can address all these expectations. It is an exciting, convergent process. But the Indian approach to manufacturing relegates design to the realm of looks and styling; it attaches premium to making money. “ Quality takes a backseat at most companies. Priority is for what can be produced fast and cheap,’’ he said. Result – designs get watered down; limits emerge on how much you can push boundaries. In an oblique manner, this probably explains why the classic Indian business play is around garnering volumes and not improving performance. If you want to improve performance, then user, product, design – they all assume significance as subjects to understand.

It provokes a question in the context of budgets periodically revising import tariff to encourage local manufacturing. How effective is raising import barriers if it is not accompanied by domestic industry’s willingness to introspect and change? I asked Shailesh what the ideal work environment for a designer like him would be. “ I would like to work for a brand that allows me the freedom to make things happen and yet lets me stay in their space, working on what I want to be involved with. I don’t want to be converted into what they define as work because that is what the market wants. I want the room to design and build without the company’s business or its fear of losing market, interfering,’’ he said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The wall new ideas encounter

By virtue of the fact that it represents alternative perspective, creativity has always had a rough ride. Yet at every juncture when difference is sorely needed, it is creativity that comes to our rescue. Do we have an environment supportive of creativity?

A key component in manufacturing and localization is engineering. India is among the largest producers of engineers in the world. Around 1.5 million engineers are released into the job market every year in the country, a 2016 media report said.

In the nineteenth century, Sir James Thomason was the lieutenant-governor of north western provinces in British India. According to Wikipedia, under the system of project implementation used by the British, superintending engineers came from Britain; craftsmen, artisans and sub-overseers were recruited locally. The need to make the latter category more efficient led to the setting up of industrial schools and other related engineering establishments. The Upper Ganges Canal Project was a major assignment taken up by the British. Thomason proposed that a civil engineering college be started at Roorkee. The resultant Thomason College of Civil Engineering signified the start of formal engineering education in India; years later it became the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Roorkee. Under the British dispensation, ideation was their domain, the locals were trained to implement. Although it is now slowly changing, this approach has remained the bedrock of Indian engineering education.

Now retired, Dr R.V.G. Menon studied at IIT Kanpur, spent many years teaching mechanical engineering at engineering colleges in Kerala and eventually took his PhD in a line of research related to solar energy. Author of a book on the history and philosophy of science – it is part of engineering curriculum in Kerala – he has also been president of Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), one of the biggest grassroots level science movements in India. I asked him how valued tinkering is in India, as aptitude / ingredient in the making of an engineer. After all, curiosity for product and the tendency to take things apart; understand materials, craftsmanship, product architecture and assembly, build upon that knowledge – this is what you find common in earlier mentioned examples like the folks at Psynyde Bikes, Siddharth Suchde or Shailesh Krishna.

“ Our engineering education has traditionally straddled two levels. The more common, basic level restricted itself to the application of available knowledge. The higher level, wherein you try to acquire new knowledge is where creativity comes to play. As of today, the bulk of our engineering education is partial to the former,’’ he said. Altering this is tough because there is considerable resistance within the system; the majority of teachers belong to the old block. This is an issue in engineering education unlike in science or humanities, where research done or PhD earned, are respected for the value they hold. Currently, appreciation for creativity in engineering is more overseas. “ Things are slowly changing but given Indian context, it will take time,’’ he said. In practical terms, that delay is a measure of how long it will be before we become sufficiently sensitive to notice and appreciate creativity.

For Indian sports, even the existence of IITs hasn’t always been helpful. If you look up the story of Shiva Keshavan (veteran Indian luger who is Asian champion, participated in six Winter Olympics and coincidentally retired from the sport at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, days after the 2018-2019 budget) on this blog, you will see there was a phase when he tried unsuccessfully to get his new luge built in India. The sport has product specifications that must be met. Shiva had approached one of the IITs to see if they would make his luge. Very simply put, a luge is no more than a fast, responsive sled. But to get those attributes correct, you should know materials, design and fabrication well, plus have empathy for intended application. The luge for Shiva couldn’t be built in India. It was finally built by former American competition luger Duncan Kennedy in league with the New York based-Clarkson University.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Make it easier to set up and run businesses. Don’t play with sports

Early February, when the Finance Minister was presenting the 2018-2019 budget in Parliament, an India-built sailboat – INSV Tarini – crewed by a team of women officers of the Indian Navy would have been making its way across the Atlantic Ocean, headed for Cape Town. For Goa based-Aquarius Shipyard, it was the second sailboat they built based on a Dutch design, out on circumnavigation. That is no small statement about Indian manufacturing; circumnavigation challenges boat and build quality. However, you would be getting it completely wrong if you concluded the Aquarius story is all about India’s wizardry with budget and tariff-inspired protectionism. Building INSV Mhadei – the first sailboat for circumnavigation the yard made – was passion and adventure, right from the retired admiral who conceived the project (Vice Admiral Manohar Awati [Retd] – he wanted India to succeed at solo circumnavigation with a boat built in India) to the naval officer who was her first skipper (Capt Dilip Donde [Retd]) to the yard that built her. In 2018, Commander Abhilash Tomy, the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation (Mhadei’s second such voyage), will participate in the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR), yet another solo nonstop circumnavigation. His boat – Thuriya – has been built by Aquarius. That’s three boats for circumnavigation built at the same yard. Years ago, after the Mhadei was constructed and handed over to the Indian Navy, the guardians of India’s finances left their stamp on the mission to realize India’s first solo circumnavigation. Taxmen raided Aquarius; they were followed by the Customs. Their imagination revolved around `yacht,’ which was how the vessel was described in tender documents; yachts are taxed heavily. That episode – the yard got back what it was forced to pay – is now a forgotten snippet but one which clearly shows how narrow a book keeping-perspective of human pursuits can be.

The problem of being taxed on par with luxury yacht is also felt in kayaking. Kayaks meant for the performance category, capable of being used in white water rapids, have to be imported. Imported kayaks stand up to the stress and abuse that turbulent waters and rocky rivers throw at them. They are also designed such that it is easy for paddler to roll over and revert to surface should the kayak capsize. Currently the cumulative tax impact on these types of kayaks aggregates to 53 per cent; 25 per cent customs duty plus 28 per cent GST. Reason – tax officials include them in the same bracket as luxury yachts. According to one Bengaluru based-kayaker, the situation is so bad at times that authorities tax kayaking accessories also at the same rate. “ We had given representations to government but the rate enforced on us remains unchanged,’’ he said almost two weeks after the 2018-2019 budget.

If you read the history of foreign climbing gear-brands, you will see that many of them began as cottage industry. Interest in sport drives curiosity for improvement, quest for apt gear, design, testing and manufacturing – historically in sport, that’s the chain. In bicycles and running shoes, internationally there have been new brands that cultivated a following. Some of the younger bicycle brands were born through committed cyclists getting into design and manufacture. In running shoes, there are stories overseas of brands which began as retailer of performance footwear, got into customization of shoes (improving the fit of other brands) and slowly transformed to outfits designing and making their own shoes. The best way to encourage manufacturing of sports gear is to desist from denting the fun in sports by raising access cost, including such things like cost of running shoes. People playing more and more translates to more experience compiled, more curiosity provoked and the search for right gear fueled. Policy-makers should focus on angles like – what it would cost to start a manufacturing unit, how easy the process of setting up business is, how affordable the capital goods relevant to manufacture those products are, how supportive community and local administration are of first generation entrepreneurs,  whether proper labs for testing equipment quality are available or not etc. Perhaps, most important of all, they must realize that affordable life all around is critical for cost competitiveness in manufacturing. The domestic environment is actually far more important to motivate a citizenry and its creativity than import tariffs fiddled with. If you take the 2012 budget as example, aside from spurring domestic bicycle manufacturers to do what they should have done earlier as natural course of business, there is little dramatically different in the industry, we can claim for budget’s legacy. Aluminum frames continue to be imported because others make it better. Viewed so, what can we hope to see as legacy for 2018’s dose of protectionism?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

MUMBAI MARATHON: 15 YEARS OLD AND EVOLVING

Indian elite runners Gopi T (center, blue T-shirt) and Nitendra Singh Rawat at 2018 TMM; they finished first and second respectively in their category (Photo: courtesy Yogesh Yadav)

The 2018 edition of the Mumbai marathon was significant for the change in title sponsorship. The era of association with Standard Chartered Bank ended. In early August 2017, it was officially disclosed that the Tata Group had signed a ten year-deal to be title sponsor of the event.

Both Standard Chartered and Tata have a history of sponsoring marathons. A London headquartered-bank with operations mostly in Asia, Africa and Middle East, Standard Chartered sponsored a string of marathons spanning the above mentioned regions. In March 2017, news reports said the bank’s financial woes had prompted it to pull out of the Mumbai marathon. This January as the 2018 Mumbai marathon was underway there were seasoned runners trading the annual pilgrimage of running it for a shot at the Dubai marathon, which incidentally remains sponsored by Standard Chartered. The two events are separated by less than a week. However Tata is bigger fish in the world of marathons. The prime mover within its fold as regards marathons is IT major, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS); the TCS website has a section devoted to sports sponsorship. Peruse it and you will see the company associated with a clutch of major international foot races. It is title sponsor for the marathons of Mumbai, New York and Amsterdam. It is title sponsor of the world’s largest cross country race in Lidingoloppet, Sweden, the presenting and technology partner for The Australian Running Festival and technology partner for the marathons of Boston, Chicago, London and Singapore.

Thanks to the ascent of city marathons, the number of recreational runners in India has been growing steadily. For the 2018 edition of the Mumbai marathon (the first time it was sponsored by Tata), some 45,000 people registered successfully. Standard Chartered did valuable service supporting the Mumbai marathon through its early years but as one among several foreign banks operating in India, its footprint is modest. Tata is household name in India. The above reasons – Tata’s familiarity with the world of marathons and the name being well known in India – made the title sponsorship deal of August 2017 interesting and couched in possibilities.

2018 TMM (Photo: courtesy Yogesh Yadav)

In the world of sponsorship, marathon falls in the category of participative sport. A big share of sponsorship money in our times flows into spectator sports. Conceptually, they are descendants of the old Roman arena. You have immediate arena and extended arena afforded by broadcast media, mainly television channels and live-streaming on Internet. The cumulative audience here is enormous, running into tens of thousands and in some cases, millions. Cast at the deep end of competition, spectator sports tend to stay distanced from viewer. Like a mountain climb, the few that make it to the summit become the stuff of everyone else’s admiration. You relate to the excitement vicariously. Participative sports attract in a different way. They invite you to participate, experience directly. Unlike in spectator sports where teams and team members are famous and the rest stay anonymous viewers, in participative sport everybody participating has an identity. Once you have registered for a marathon, there is a run-up to actual event, which may be anything from a couple of weeks to couple of months. During this time, there is periodic correspondence between organizer and participant. There is acknowledgement of registration, confirmation of participation, reminders, invitation to pre-race expo and finally the expo, where many of the sponsors known until then as digital images in correspondence, manifest physically. The exercise provides a dimension of interface rarely found in spectator sport; the engagement in participative sport resembles direct marketing, closer perhaps to discreet direct marketing. It even graduates to real involvement for with products like running gear and shoes; the participant has a personal need he tries to satisfy given race approaching. Equally as regards services like registration process, app based-tracking (which allows runner’s progress to be tracked by family and friends), result and timing details wherein technology partners matter, efficiency is quickly felt and appreciated. Repeat registrations make the relationship with event, stickier. While this is the architecture of engagement, sponsors of marathons rarely – probably never – talk of it as a marketing exercise. Corporate backers of running – given health benefits associated with running and the satisfaction participants draw from completing a race – position it as avenue to give back to workforce and community. Gains to brand profile accrue obliquely.

On the street, there were expectations when Tata assumed title sponsorship of the Mumbai marathon. Besides the familiarity Tata has with marathons in US and Europe, their sponsorship of the Mumbai marathon was seen as homecoming. Tata’s headquarters are in Mumbai. For some runners this blog spoke to, the change in title sponsorship wasn’t significant because event implementation is by Procam. In their eyes, the title sponsor was funds provider. Many others though sensed potential for change. But they couldn’t gauge what is realistically possible and not. The feedback we got from a mix of runners and marketers we spoke to on the change in title sponsor for the Mumbai marathon, was that these are early days. The January 2018 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) was mere months after Tata assumed title sponsorship. The 2018 TMM saw a new timed 10 km-race, introduced. Also debuting was the `inspiration medal’ for full marathon finishers. Going ahead, best practices from Tata-backed races overseas, could be infused into TMM, those we spoke to felt.

This image was downloaded from the TMM website. It is being used here for representation purposes only.

The 2-in-1 `inspiration medal,’ one for finisher to keep, the other for potential gifting to someone who mattered in runner’s journey to completing the full marathon (Photo: courtesy Mani Iyer)

At the Nariman Point office of Chlorophyll Innovation Lab, Chitresh Sinha CEO & Head Innovation shared the story behind the `inspiration medal’ introduced in 2018. Different from the standard advertising agency or consultancy, Chlorophyll Innovation Lab is a brand innovations collective that works with brands, evolving technologies, art and social impact to “ bring alive innovation in integrated ways.’’ Procam, organizers of the Mumbai marathon, is one of its clients. According to Chitresh, between 150,000-200,000 people apply for TMM, which is also the single largest platform to raise funds for charity in India. “ Brand value is more at the human level than as return on investment for association with a running event,’’ he said. Studies have shown that people decide to attempt a marathon for factors ranging from the health benefits of running and sense of achievement to the meditative quality of running. “ Why do they wish to repeat it? That is the interesting part – they do so because it changes their life,’’ he said quoting examples of runners who kicked addictions and bad habits, grew closer to their families and found time for their children because their life transformed through training to run. For such reasons, it is not possible to benchmark the dazzling world of spectator sport with participative sport. “ Spectator sport is all about eyeballs. Its real impact on people’s lives is limited,’’ Chitresh said. If you want visibility and have a specific window of time assigned for gaining it, then investing in spectator sports makes sense. With participative sports, you stay invested longer but you reap an enduring bond. Currently India has around 1-1.5 million runners and 800 odd timed races. Chitresh said, Procam wishes to see the overall number of runners (across India) grow to 20 million in the next five years or so. That means the idea of running must spread quietly and convincingly. The social aspect of running was the premise from which Chlorophyll Innovation Lab recommended the `inspiration medal,’ a composite of two medals in one. A typical city based-runner, balancing work and life, is often seen off to training by wife and children. An early breakfast for instance, requires more than one pair of hands in Indian households. An early departure for training is a team effort by family. If you have a medal that is a composite of two separate medals and you can peel one off to gift it to somebody who played a pivotal role in making you a runner, then it helps endear running to more people.

As with many sports events, TMM straddles a fine divide between participation and performance. It takes both to shape an event’s stature. Not all runners we spoke to in Mumbai were enthused by the `inspiration medal.’ Some of them wished that improvements to TMM stay focused on running and runners’ needs, a view that is also partly fueled by Tata’s international presence in marathon events. If you imagine down running’s alley, the possibilities one can speculate, are dime a dozen. Which of the lot is practical enough to implement? That challenges. Consensus among those we spoke to was that improvements to how TMM is arranged and managed plus infusion of technologies relevant to running could be a realistic expectation over the next few years. Anything more, likely takes more than just Tata.

Elite runners at 2018 TMM (Photo: by arrangement)

TMM is recognized as the flagship running event in India. “ A distant second to the Mumbai marathon would be the one in Bengaluru,’’ a leading amateur athlete (name withheld as we promised him anonymity for this conversation) said. “ There is a depth of awareness about the annual marathon in Mumbai that you don’t find in other Indian cities. When I landed in Mumbai to run the 2018 TMM, even my taxi driver knew that the marathon was due. Among major marathons, this is without doubt the best organized race in India. But if you are talking of positioning Mumbai in the same category as Boston and New York because Tata is now involved, then we are a long way off. First those events are far older than TMM. They have evolved that much more. Second, those are cities which view their annual marathon as an important fixture in the annual calendar. Over there, the civic apparatus works in tandem with runners and organizers to make a city’s annual marathon happen successfully. That is running culture – and in that, India is far behind,’’ he said. Major cities overseas get their marathon act together because running is integral to how they imagine lifestyle. Will Tata’s assumption of title sponsorship, make the collective effort to host Mumbai’s annual marathon more convergent towards its goal of a good experience, year after year? Will Mumbai formally identify itself with running and its annual marathon?

Cheering is a critical component of any marathon’s ecosystem and when it comes to city marathons, it is a window to meeting the host. The Boston Marathon, world’s oldest annual marathon, began in 1897. That makes it 121 years old. Indians who have run in Boston speak of it as a memorable experience, cheering playing no small part in it. At 15, TMM is definitely past infant stage. On January 21, 2018, just beyond the Mumbai marathon’s finish line, I met a city based-full marathoner who felt that cheering along the marathon’s route had come down. That is hard to believe given so much said day in and day out about the spirit of Mumbai. It is a fact that while running, runners dwell in a `zone’ in the head; cheering doesn’t register always. Still did this runner notice something many of us didn’t or preferred to overlook in our affection for the city? Can there be initiatives that make spectators and non-runners feel invested in the annual outing? A city that loves its marathon must never stop exploring how the experience can be improved for success can stagnate and novelty can fade.

Fifteen years old and growing, the evolution of the Mumbai marathon will be worth watching.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)       

2018 GGR / THE THURIYA GETS READY

The Thuriya when she was floated in August 2017; view from aft, notice the small cabin, tiller and wind driver autopilot (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Thuriya, the sail boat that will carry Commander Abhilash Tomy KC in the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR), will have her mast fitted in December.

The boat, based on the same design that Sir Robin Knox-Johnston used for his solo nonstop circumnavigation in the first GGR of 1968, was built at Aquarius Shipyard in Goa and floated in August 2017.

The GGR involves solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat. Sir Robin was the first person to do such a solo nonstop circumnavigation. Suhaili, the boat Sir Robin used, was built in Mumbai.

The Thuriya is currently in Goa. Aquarius, the yard that built her, had earlier built the Mhadei and her sister vessel, the Tarini, too.

In 2012-2013, Abhilash had become the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation aboard the Indian Navy’s INSV Mhadei.

His team manager for the 2018 GGR is Captain Dilip Donde (Retd), the first Indian to do a solo circumnavigation.

“ We did a dry run of the mast installation at the yard to figure out the placement of deck gear. After that, we took off the masts and kept them aside. We will do the final installation of the mast in December seaward of all the bridges on Mandovi River,’’ Abhilash informed last week. Being seaward of the bridges for mast-installation was the case when Mhadei was built at Aquarius, too. Sail boats may be small. But their masts can be tall and the road bridges over the Mandovi don’t have adequate clearance for such sail boats to pass through, below. The mast is therefore fitted closer to the river’s estuary, past the bridges. Aquarius on the other hand, is located upstream.

According to Abhilash, the team also did a trial of the jury rig on the river. “ Jury rigging is the use of make-shift repairs or temporary contrivances, made with only the tools and materials that happen to be on hand, originally in a nautical context. On square-rigged sailing ships, a jury rig is a replacement mast and yards (a yard is a spar to which a sail is attached) improvised in case of damage or loss of the original mast,’’ Wikipedia explains. “ We will be doing formal trials sometime this week after all the communication equipment and electrical systems are installed,’’ Abhilash said.

Incidentally, the Thuriya has to be free of modern digital communication and navigation devices. Besides circumnavigation, the second GGR’s quest is to sail around the world at the same technology level as prevailed in 1968.

Meanwhile, the engine trial has been done and the team is satisfied with the result. The engine on a sail boat is typically used for maneuvering within harbors. Races impose strict conditions on how they may be used, including sometimes, cap on amount of fuel permitted.

“ Sea trials will happen in December after the mast is installed,’’ Abhilash said.

Major sponsors to support the voyage are awaited. Few events showcase adventure in the true sense as sailing around the world solo and nonstop in a sail boat with electronics capped at 1968 level.

Abhilash is the only participant from India in the race.

For more on the Thuriya and the 2018 GGR please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/08/11/2018-golden-globe-race-ggr-meet-the-thuriya/

For more on solo circumnavigation please click on Sagar Parikrama under `categories’ in the side bar of the blog.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

THOUGHTS AROUND SMOG

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Breath is life.

Early November 2017, the question vexing Delhi was – how safe is the air?

The smog hung thick.

The union environment minister was quoted in news reports ascribing the smog to “ adverse meteorological conditions.’’ According to him, there were the twin problems of still wind at ground level and two wind masses – one bearing pollutants from crop burning in Punjab, the other laden with moisture and blowing in from eastern UP – colliding in the upper atmosphere. The minister was likely correct. It was also selective explanation, the stuff of calibrated response. It suggested that the fault wasn’t ours; it was more a conspiracy by weather.

We have known for long that Indian cities are polluted and becoming increasingly so. Across Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and more – there are rivers, streams and creeks that have been polluted to varying shades of sewer. Blaming their toxicity on lack of water flow or colliding water currents, would be laughable. We know the toxicity is us; our way of life. All the three major culprits cited for the Delhi smog are man-made – crop burning, automobile emission and construction dust. Mumbai escapes terrible smog probably because it is a coastal city. But its land, water bodies and the adjacent sea are scarred by pollution. Adding to the confusion over how to tackle pollution is life by religion. Amid smog in Delhi, some highlighted how the Court erred, blaming Diwali for pollution when immediate culprits are other causes. I shut my ears. By the time I left Delhi for Mumbai, two people were dead after their car fell into the Yamuna River, courtesy smog and low visibility. Elsewhere, there were reports of vehicle pile-up.

For those interested in running, major question was – what will happen to Delhi’s biggest running event due later in November? This discussion too was characterized by calibrated response. The organizers termed medical advice seeking cancellation of event as premature; they said similar conditions had been there before, they said vehicles wouldn’t be plying the race’s route from 12 hours prior to the event and that salt water would be used to wash the route to keep dust settled. Are we past calibrated response? Anyone who walks, runs or cycles regularly in Indian cities is automatically exposed to the dark side of our collective existence; the extent of air pollution and the danger of rising vehicular traffic. Besides poor quality air for runners to inhale, cyclists have got knocked down by aggressive traffic. People have died.

What worries in an experiential sense is how respect for human-powered locomotion and the outdoors is shrinking in Indian life and how that attitude is spreading like fashion. Nine days after I left Delhi, the city’s prestigious half marathon was held as scheduled. News reports said, close to 35,000 people had registered. Thanks to wind and rain, pollution thinned and air quality improved. It’s good to know that committed runners will run no matter what. Unfortunately nobody asks – what happens after they display their resolve? Will the resolve extend to making sure that next time around, pollution levels are low? As we become more and more slaves of our emergent nature, those of us feeling alarmed by pollution outside shrink in number and calibrated response to pollution becomes increasingly acceptable. It is convenient, avoids blaming us. Colliding air currents suffice to explain Delhi’s smog and runners and cyclists would seem a nuisance on streets meant for climate controlled-vehicles transporting people and goods to their destination. Why are we suckers for calibrated response? Why don’t we notice the blunt truth? Nobody likes pointing the finger of blame at themselves, particularly in context like India where national problems – from population to pollution – are self-wrought. Calibrated response is dished out to keep the human collective and strategically important economic interests therein, happy. Population becomes market and workforce for GDP; pollution becomes collateral damage for industry and employment.

Delhi, early November 2017 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In contrast, endurance is about experiencing self and solitude. Deep into a run, hike or swim you confront it. You become just what you are. There is no room for pretense, cover-up and fraudulence. There is no hive; only bee. For such a mind, between noticing smog and buying into calibrated response, the former should attract. Doing so, you are no more market. A market pace of evolution is nowadays not only slow compared to the urgency of our problems, it also leaves us intellectually dissatisfied. Increasingly now, a better environment is our individual responsibility. The outdoors and endurance sport are like portals to awareness. Some view it as achievement. A slightly different lot would view it as a new way of looking at life. The word for it is perhaps – aesthetic. The Oxford dictionary describes aesthetic as: concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty. Dig a bit deeper. Here’s how the dictionary describes beauty: a combination of qualities, such as shape, color or form that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially sight. Within that meaning and several other sub-texts, there was also this: a combination of qualities that pleases the intellect.  Question to ask is – are we living an aesthetically pleasing life? Did the smog seem beautiful?

There’s more to the smog than meets the eye.

In it, we see what we have become.

A sense of aesthetic will help us pollute less.

Following which, any marathon will be beautiful, no salt water needed.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)  

BICYCLES: THE INDIAN MARKET CONTINUES TO EVOLVE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

An updated bird’s eye view of the market for premium bicycles in India. This article is ideally read in conjunction with the earlier market overview posted on this blog in August 2013. 

The Indian market for bicycles, for long stuck in unappealing product lines and then nudged to change by the entry of Firefox and Trek, continues to evolve. The pace of change has been slowly picking up; according to those in the business, the biggest change has been the Indian customer. Disposable income has risen and many traditional bicycle retailers have moved up the value chain to selling premium bicycles. But the critical question is – how much share does cycling command in the customer’s growing disposable income? Given the worry over climate change and consequent relevance of environment friendly transport, cycling worldwide has a bright future. It is limited by inadequate infrastructure in developing markets and the continued low penetration of the bicycle as means of transport in very poor countries. In India, rising number of automobiles, unruly traffic and lack of roads with proper bicycle lanes has meant urban environments that are far from futuristic. Although news reports in 2016 said that 41 per cent of the country’s population is younger than 20 years of age and nearly half the population is aged between 20-59 years, the shortage of enjoyable space for cycling may affect the pace at which cycling grows. Till Indian life and urban planning appreciate physically active lifestyle and environment friendliness as core values, the true merit of cycling won’t be adequately experienced.

Globally, bicycles and products related to cycling are among biggest silos in sale of sports equipment. As per a market study done by Paris based-NPD Group, the global cycling market was worth 47.4 billion US dollars (including revenue lines like parts & accessories, footwear and cycling apparel) in 2014. The survey estimated that around the world roughly 133.1 million bicycles, including e-bikes, were sold. Another study by Persistence Market Research (PMR) – the main points of which are available on the Internet – said that the global market for bicycles is expected to expand by 37.5 per cent over 2016-2024, from 45.08 billion US dollars to 62 billion dollars. Asia-Pacific is forecast to be the most lucrative market. There are several such studies accessible online; period of study and forecasts vary but there seems to be general agreement on factors driving the market.

For the earlier overview posted in August 2013, please click on this link:  https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2013/08/24/cyclings-second-youth/

The categories

In India, the premium segment, where the bulk of the action has been, retains its fundamental segmentation into four product lines (segmentation as perceived by this blog for purpose of simplicity) – road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrids and other varieties like folding bikes, touring bikes and electric bikes. Road bikes, also called racing cycles in India, are truly performance category products. They are meant for speed. To this end they possess rigid frames, are built light and given the rider sits with a forward stance, demand a certain amount of competence on the part of the cyclist to be handled well. Mountain bikes have more moving components on them to cushion passage over uneven terrain and are typically geared for climbing. Hybrids straddle a mix of properties drawn from road and mountain bikes. A blended package of speed and some ability to tackle uneven terrain, they are now a product line, many Indian cyclists are taking to. According to the PMR study, hybrids are expected to account for the major slice of bicycle sales worldwide, going ahead. The category of folding bikes and touring bikes is still quite niche in India as are electric bikes. E-bikes can be pretty expensive. Still, according to the website statista.com, 32.8 million e-bikes were sold in Asia Pacific in 2016 with Western Europe a distant second at 1.6 million units. China was the biggest market. In several market studies, the e-bike segment has been forecast as a significant driver for premium bike sales, globally. A new, promising sub-category, which opened up in India would be that of stylish commuter bikes. They are typically partial to road bike in frame design but sport a straight handle bar eliminating thus the need for a hunched-over position while cycling.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The brands

In terms of market, the Indian story is roughly so: as Firefox tapped the market with its products and those of the American bicycle manufacturer -Trek, longstanding players like Hero Cycles and TI Cycles were forced to respond. Hero launched its new line of bicycles called Urban Trail (UT) and then proceeded to acquire Firefox. TI on the other hand, commenced its now well-known Track and Trail outlets, feeding them with a distribution pipeline offering foreign brands like Cannondale, GT, Bianchi, Mongoose, Ridley and Schwinn. It also launched an in-house brand – Montra – for the emergent premium segment of the domestic market. Put together, UT and Montra span MTBs, hybrids and road bikes. TI has also introduced Mach City, a line of practical, elegant and more affordable bicycles that can be used for commuting. Over time, some of these brands have expanded their product line-up; some have become focused. Both Trek and Cannondale have grown the variety in their product line-up for India while Mongoose has narrowed its portfolio to focus on BMX cycles. Among major brands entering the market after Trek’s early arrival and Track and Trail’s bouquet of imported models, were Giant, Scott and Specialized. Giant – one of the world’s biggest bicycle companies – partnered Starkenn and opened a series of showrooms with Pune as base. Specialized tied up with Bengaluru based-Bums on the Saddle (BOTS); they opened a flagship store in that city. Scott appears happy to sell through multi-brand outlets. Other foreign brands like Merida (incidentally one of the early entrants into India), Ghost, Focus, Fuji, Polygon, Bergamont and KHS – plus high performance niche brands like Merckx, Colnago, Pinarello, Cervelo and NeilPryde, which can be ordered – are also available in the Indian market. Not to mention, Rockrider and Btwin, sold by the French sports goods major, Decathlon. Even touring bike specialist, Surly, has dealers in the country. The Indian market also features electric bikes. E-bikes have cornered much attention overseas. But the significant market development domestically, post-Firefox, would have to be the advent of brands like UT, Montra, Kross and Mach City and what these brands and their product portfolios speak by way of promise for large Indian manufacturers going ahead. It is still early days.

26, 27.5, 29: battle of the twenty somethings

Against the above market scenario, trends carried over from the international bicycle market, made their presence felt. One trend that kicked up plenty of conflicting views, dealt with wheel dimension. Internationally bicycle tyre sizes are many. Until recently the average customer of a premium bicycle in India had to contend with two tyre sizes in the main – 26 inches (with room for width and tread variations therein) for mountain bikes and similarly, the 700c for road bikes and hybrids. The longstanding 26 inch size was both the leading dimension in mountain bikes and a favorite with cyclists into technical riding as it made overall bicycle size compact and maneuverable. Over a span of maybe two years, this dimension was faulted by bicycle manufacturers for less distance covered for every rotation of the crank, besides less surface contact and greater difficulty in rolling over obstacles.

One leading manufacturer pushed for 29 inch wheels (at which point technically speaking, a 700c tyre should also fit that mountain bike) as new standard; another promoted 27.5 inch. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that this move – with no pressing demand from customers for it – caused confusion. YouTube videos exist in which industry representatives can be seen asking angrily, why customers can’t cope with change. Some manufacturers resorted to models that could accommodate more than one wheel size as though to hedge market risk. The problems were several. A bicycle is an aggregate of many parts, each connected to the next. When you alter the dimensions in one part, it cascades down the chain. Wheel size is a major change having immediate impact on a bicycle’s fork and the geometry of its frame. Given a big chunk of mountain bike users was running 26 inch wheels with matching fork and frame, what the manufacturers were pushing for had the capacity to leave existing users with outmoded designs they couldn’t easily modify to take on the new specifications. The transition to 27.5 inches and 29 inches caused anxiety with some chats on the Internet citing reduced fresh production of 26 inch tyres by reputed tyre manufacturers. Premium bicycles are not use and throw consumer products in India. Altering wheel size and potentially rendering an existing size obsolete affects users / customers in emerging markets like India because premium bicycles are still seen as an investment. In the premium segment of the Indian market, both 29 inch and 27.5 inch models are now on offer. The old 26 continues to be around.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The emergence of new generation bike builders

According to the NPD survey mentioned earlier, the composite of bicycle sales plus related revenue like parts & accessories, footwear and apparel would make cycling, the single biggest category in the global sports market. That’s a measure of the opportunity. Asia Pacific is portrayed as the market to look out for in the future and therein, India is a big market. Firefox’s biggest selling point when it debuted in the Indian market was how different its products were compared to the bicycles Indian manufacturers made. While big foreign brands followed and palpable difference by performance DNA set in, the next step – that of Indian cycling enthusiasts realizing in flesh and blood, the blue prints in their head, commenced. Pune based Psynyde Bikes – founded by committed cyclists – started out with custom built bikes. By 2017, they were in the market with a mountain bike called Furan,’ which they had designed themselves and got made overseas. Psynyde also makes bicycle components. Such developments are not to be discounted. If you trace the history of some of cycling’s iconic brands, you will find this is how their journey started. Are there more such stories brewing in India? Time will tell. Interestingly being a cyclist needn’t by itself make you good at the business of bicycles. One leading retailer described how he gets a lot of enquiries from people passionate about cycling, to join his team. Among the first things that can happen when a cyclist goes into business is that his / her personal time for cycling may go down as the business needs attending to. “ Cycling and managing a bicycle business are two different things. You have to be prepared to handle the difference,” he said. He thought Psynyde made the cut because Praveen Prabhakaran – one of its founders – had been at it for long. The Furan is the result of a long journey, patiently done. It wasn’t passion alone. It was also hard work, sustained for several years.

Aspiration grows but local environment limits

Finally, Indian cycling – as in what the cyclists are up to – has also evolved and come of age. There are people now travelling overseas to compete at races. Milestones coveted by the domestic cycling fraternity are being achieved. The first team-finish and the first solo finish by Indians at Race Across America (RAAM), one of the most grueling endurance races on the planet, have happened. A few years ago, Bengaluru based-Kynkyny Cycling Team was in the news for meriting sponsorship from Specialized (it is understood that sponsorship contract has since expired). Given aspiration is what pushes up benchmarks in any market, these developments will have an impact on what products / models can be sold in the Indian market or accessed from here. A good market also needs scale. Notwithstanding enterprising cycling groups and growth in available product line-up, cycling stays challenged by the lack of a proper bicycling environment in Indian cities given few to no bicycle tracks, growth in vehicular traffic and general contempt by motorists towards their non-motorized brethren on two wheels.

Try this for perspective: In February 2017, the media reported that as per figures released by International Data Corporation (IDC), the Indian market for smartphones registered shipment of 109.1 million units in 2016, a marginal annual growth of 5.2 per cent. Obviously smartphone manufacturers are not thrilled. This is the digital age and they would like stronger figures. Reports have indicated there is a migration issue in the market; smartphone prices are still high and Indians love value for money. Roughly two years earlier, in August 2015, media reports quoting IDC also forecast that by 2017 the Indian market for smartphones will be bigger than that of the US. This is the smartphone ecosystem in India. Not all digital technology is a blessing. Debating that or the growing specter of smartphone obsessed people isn’t the purpose of this article. What is clear is that cycling can work as an antidote for sedentary life. Theoretically, a problem and its solution should grow hand in hand, provided tax rates, infrastructure, policy – they don’t adulterate the market.

The Indian bicycle market has no sales figures of the sort comparable to the Indian smartphone market. Unlike the bicycle, the smartphone is an easy purchase, which once done, sits in your pocket. You don’t have to worry about storage space at home (although using it, you can cram your home with more consumables!) But the reason this comparison of two seemingly unrelated products, engages, is because their costs are near similar and the nature of lifestyle they inspire, contrasting. According to a news report in April 2017, the hot spot of the Indian smartphone market is in the Rs 10,000-20,000 price bracket (this roughly matches the lower strata of the Indian market for premium bicycles, where incidentally the bulk of the action for domestic manufacturers is). During 2015-2016, after four years of sluggishness, the average sale price of smartphones in India rose by four per cent. Two things strike you about the growing market for smartphones in India – the ability of wireless connectivity to overcome a physical world characterized by poor infrastructure, clutter and congestion; an exploding ecosystem of content and things to do using the smartphone. Juxtapose on this, what a committed cyclist and bike retailer I spoke to quipped, “ people spend up to a lakh of rupees on an iPhone.’’ What prevents them from spending so on bicycles, which are clearly products delivering good health and zero pollution? The biggest likely reason for this lay in the larger Indian ecosystem, still partial to sedentary life, unimaginative infrastructure, chaotic traffic and the rule of might is right. With a car or SUV, you can dominate. Unlike a smartphone, which opens doors to a virtual world, a bicycle is a refined way of living in what is still, the old physical world. If the bicycle has to have as much share in your disposable income as a smartphone, the attraction for cycling has to be that compelling. The cycling environment matters. “ Abroad also, there is a price you must pay to own the type of bicycle you want. But once you own it, you can cycle around, you can enjoy cycling,” the person I spoke to said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The best civic authorities are yet able to serve up are fads like shutting down roads to traffic for a few hours every month to host healthy recreational activities including cycling. Once or twice a year, these authorities, companies and other interested sponsors also get together to organize a group ride for publicity. Photos taken and splashed in the media, cycling is back to where it was. In 2012, the government hiked import duties on bicycles. Now under the new Goods & Services Tax (GST) regime, bicycles and components merit 12 per cent tax while accessories lay scattered across the 12 per cent, 18 per cent and 28 per cent tax slabs. “ A bicycle helmet attracts 18 per cent tax under GST. I wish we are able to acknowledge the fundamental merit in bicycles and position cycling solidly for the future instead of treating it like this. For sure, GST puts a structure in place and that is good. But I don’t think cycling deserves the tax slabs it has been cast in. Why not five per cent?” a leading retailer said. If its any comfort – a May 30, 2017 report in Times of India, said, smartphones fell in the 12 per cent GST slab. In comparison to this Indian predicament, countries like Germany are building roads exclusively for cycling. In end-2016, Germany opened its first stretch of a 100 km-bike autobahn. That’s the equivalent of rolling out telecom network, of which we saw much in India. Cycling’s relevance for the future is clear. Question is – when will India take notice of it?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)