Indian aviation magnate Ajay Singh had little experience in healthcare, but last November, when the country was ravaged by the coronavirus, he suddenly switched to Covid-19 testing and later genomic sequencing.
Known for his close ties to Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India – he is credited with coining the 2014 election slogan “This time, the government of Modi” – Singh launched SpiceHealth and vowed to make tests cheaper, faster and more available. .
Within months, the group had expanded its reach across the country, even conducting tests in April for some of the millions of pilgrims who attended the annual Kumbh Mela, the country’s largest religious gathering that was later seen as a super spreader event. .
Singh’s rapid turn from the loss-making aviation sector to healthcare underlines how some of India’s biggest tycoons have managed to thrive 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 this year during the catastrophic second wave.
Even before the latest outbreak, SpiceJet, in which Singh has a 60 percent stake, was reeling from a national lockdown last year. The airline reported losses in the past four quarters and has postponed the salaries of some employees for weeks.
In February, its auditors Walker Chandiok & Co said there was “material uncertainty” about SpiceJet’s ability to continue as a continuity. The losses would have been even greater if Boeing’s expected compensation for grounding 737 Max aircraft had not been included.
“We can’t understand how they stay alive,” said a chief executive of a rival airline.
Jitender Bhargava, former executive director of Air India, praised Singh for his management of SpiceJet, which bailed out seven years ago when it was near bankruptcy and acted swiftly to get its hands on rival Jet Airways’ plane after it collapsed in 2019. .
“He has done well, but financially, few airlines have cash reserves. How long can one keep up with the second wave we’ve had?” said Bhargava.
But industry executives and analysts say Singh is an opportunist likely to get through the turbulence.
“Indian aviation is drowning, but Ajay will survive,” said Neelam Mathews, an aviation analyst in New Delhi.
Tushar Srivastava, head of communications for SpiceJet and SpiceHealth, said the government has “not asked for or granted any favors” to the group’s companies.
SpiceJet, under Singh’s control and management, paid off all the debt needed to revive the airline in 2014 and there was no financial aid or exemption from the government.
The number of Covid-19 deaths in India
Singh is not from one of India’s established business families, such as the Tatas, whose group spans sectors from steel to software, or the Ambanis, the dynasty behind Reliance Industries, which dominates petrochemicals and retail.
Observers consider Singh, who has his master’s degree in business administration from Cornell University, to be a technocrat who has managed to enter the worlds of business and politics.
“Someone who can talk to both sides of the aisle, politics and money, is a rare animal,” said Rohit Chandra, an assistant professor of public policy at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.
Singh served as a close associate of Pramod Mahajan, the former telecoms minister and fund-raiser for the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, who was assassinated by his brother in 2006.
He is so close to the ruling party that BJP leaders often appear at Singh’s events. Modi opened the SpiceJet seaplane service launch in October. A month later, Amit Shah, India’s Home Secretary and one of Modi’s closest lieutenants, showed up at the opening of SpiceHealth’s first mobile testing lab, a public-private partnership with the country’s top clinical research agency.
Whatever his connections, Singh’s timing for the switch to healthcare has turned out to be coincidental, as this year’s outbreak nearly brought air traffic to a standstill for the second time.
Run by his 24-year-old daughter Avani Singh, SpiceHealth, a separate company from SpiceJet, has 15 mobile labs across the country that each have a daily capacity of 3,000 tests. SpiceHealth has set up a genomic sequencing facility at Delhi International Airport and Avani has discussed the procurement and distribution of vaccines.
SpiceHealth was launched using Singh’s personal money. The company started with quick tests and then branched out into other products, including selling “SpiceOxy,” a ventilation device.
The Spice group of companies shipped 34 million Covid-19 vaccines across the country between January and April. During the second wave, they flew thousands of oxygen concentrators from Beijing, Nanjing, Wuhan and Hong Kong to India to remedy a gas shortage.
Not satisfied with his foray into healthcare and apparently unfazed by SpiceJet’s problems, Singh has expressed his willingness to step up his commitment to India’s battered airline industry.
In March, he was nominated as a bidder for Air India, the state monolith that New Delhi has been trying to privatize for years. If he succeeds, a buyer will be announced later this year and Singh will face a ravishing $3.3 billion debt.
“You have to give it to Ajay Singh, something that cannot be denied to him is that he is a man who seizes opportunities,” Bhargava said.