Air India boss succeeded in pandemic by turning to healthcare

Air India tycoon Ajay Singh has little experience in healthcare, but in November last year, as the country was hit by the coronavirus, he suddenly got involved in Covid-19 testing and later genome sequencing.

Known for his close relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi-he is believed to have created the 2014 election slogan “This time, the Modi government”-Singh launched SpiceHealth, vowing to Make testing cheaper, faster, and more accessible.

Within a few months, the organization expanded its reach across the country, and even provided a test in April for some of the millions of pilgrims participating in the annual Big Pot Festival, the largest religious gathering in the country , Which was later regarded as a super spreading activity.

Singh’s rapid shift from the loss-making aviation industry to health care highlights the success of some of India’s biggest tycoons even during the pandemic.

India is one of the countries hardest hit by Covid-19, with more than 28 million cases and 335,000 deaths, many of which occurred in the disastrous second wave of the epidemic this year.

Even before the recent outbreak, SpiceJet, in which Singer holds 60% of the shares, was blocked nationwide last year. The airline reported losses for the past four quarters and delayed the wages of some employees for several weeks.

In February of this year, its auditor, Walker Chandiok & Co, stated that SpiceJet’s ability to continue operations is “significantly uncertain.” If Boeing’s expected compensation for the grounding of the 737 Max aircraft is not included, its losses would be even greater.

“We can’t understand how they are alive,” said an executive at a rival airline.

Former Executive Director of Air India Jitender Bhargava praised Singh’s management of SpiceJet, rescued the company when it was on the verge of bankruptcy seven years ago, and acted quickly to snap up the company after its collapse in 2019 Competitor Jet Airways’ aircraft.

“He did a good job, but in terms of finances, few airlines have cash reserves. How long can one last in the second wave we experienced?” Bhargava said.

But industry executives and analysts say Singh is an opportunist who is likely to tide over the storm.

Neelam Matthews, an aviation analyst in New Delhi, said: “India’s aviation industry is being overwhelmed, but Ajay will survive.”

Tushar Srivastava, director of communications for SpiceJet and SpiceHealth, said the government “did not seek or provide” the group’s business.

SpiceJet, under Singh’s control and management, paid off all debts needed to revitalize the airline in 2014, and the government did not provide any financial assistance or exemptions.


Covid-19 deaths in India

Singh is not from one of the mature business families in India, such as the Tata family, whose group spans from steel to software, nor the Ambanis family, which is the dynasty behind Reliance Industries. The latter dominates the petrochemical and retail industries.

Observers believe that Singer, who received an MBA from Cornell University, is a technocrat who has successfully crossed business and politics.

Rohit Chandra, assistant professor of public policy at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, said: “A person who can talk to both sides of the aisle, politics and money is a rare animal.”

Singh served as a close assistant to Pramod Mahajan, a former telecommunications minister and ruling Bharatiya Janata fundraiser, who was murdered by his brother in 2006.

He is so close to the ruling party that the leaders of the People’s Party often appear in Singh’s activities. Modi launched SpiceJet’s seaplane service in October. A month later, Amit Shah, the Indian Minister of the Interior and one of Modi’s closest deputies, appeared at the opening ceremony of SpiceHealth’s first mobile testing laboratory, a public-private partnership with the country’s top clinical research institutions Partnerships.

Regardless of his relationship, it turns out that the timing of Singh’s turn to healthcare was accidental. He happened before this year’s outbreak caused air travel to almost cease for the second time.

SpiceHealth is an independent company of SpiceJet. It is run by his 24-year-old daughter Avani Singh. It operates 15 mobile laboratories across the country, each of which can perform 3,000 tests per day. SpiceHealth has established a genome sequencing facility at Delhi’s international airport, and Avani also talked about entering the field of vaccine procurement and distribution.

SpiceHealth was launched using Singer’s personal funds. The company started with rapid testing and then expanded to other products, including selling “SpiceOxy”, a ventilation device.

The Spice Group shipped 34 million Covid-19 vaccines nationwide between January and April. In the second wave, they airlifted thousands of oxygen generators from Beijing, Nanjing, Wuhan and Hong Kong to India to alleviate gas shortages.

SpiceHealth CEO Avani Singh and her father, SpiceJet owner Ajay Singh, at the group’s genome sequencing laboratory at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi go away

SpiceHealth CEO Avani Singh (left) and her father Ajay Singh (the owner of SpiceJet) at the group’s genome sequencing laboratory at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. © T. Narayan/Bloomberg

Singh is not satisfied with his healthcare career, and apparently doesn’t care about SpiceJet’s problems. He expressed his willingness to strengthen his commitment to India’s hard-hit aviation industry.

In March of this year, he was listed as a bidder for Air India, a state-owned giant that New Delhi has been trying to privatize for years. If he succeeds, the buyer will announce later this year that Singh will have to assume a dizzying amount of 3.3 billion US dollars in debt.

“You have to give it to Ajay Singh. It is undeniable for him that he is a man who seized the opportunity,” Bhargava said.

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About the Author: Agnes Zang