Sunday, September 12, 2010

Villgro Blog: Simply Fly Chapter 1

In July of this year, Monitor released “Building Houses, Financing Homes: A Study Report of India’s Rapidly Growing Housing and Housing Finance Markets for the Low-Income Customer”. In this report, Monitor defines the low-income customer as one with a monthly household income of between Rs.7,000 and Rs.15,000. In contrast, the BoP literature and books such as Paul Polak’s Out of Poverty talk of the dollar-a-day customer. A back-of-the-napkin calculation suggests that the monthly income of a dollar-a-day customer in India would be around Rs.1,200. Even if this dollar-a-day customer has other family members who are working, it is unlikely that their monthly household income would reach Rs.7,000. Therefore, the low-income customer of the Monitor study is clearly different from the dollar-a-day customer of the BoP literature and Out of Poverty.

Nevertheless, there may be lessons to be learned from Monitor’s business model and other innovative solutions to meet the need of low-income urban housing that can be applied to reaching the dollar-a-day customer. It was with a similar thought in mind that I started reading Captain Gopinath’s Simply Fly, published last year. Captain Gopinath founded Deccan Airlines, India’s first and largest low-cost carrier. While Deccan is exalted for enabling the “common man” to fly, this “common man” is again not the dollar-a-day customer. Nevertheless, I expected that elements of Deccan’s business model would be applicable to reaching the BoP. In addition, Simply Fly is the autobiography of an Indian entrepreneur, and therefore could be also be relevant to efforts to promote entrepreneurship, and incubate entrepreneurs, in India.

The first chapter of this book, the subject of this post, is on Gopinath’s life from childhood to the time he becomes an officer cadet in the Artillery School. The reader learns that Gopinath’s father is a role model for him during his childhood. Gopinath enters military training, enrolling in a boarding school called the Sainik School where he suffers from homesickness. It is then that Gopinath’s father advises him to be courageous, to take hold of his life and to make something of it. The reader assumes that it is these lessons, learnt from his father, that stand Gopinath in good stead later in his career as an entrepreneur.

However, there are some contradictions that emerge in the first chapter as well, both in the lessons that Gopinath’s father teaches him, and in comparison with the military training that the boy receives. Firstly, while Gopinath’s father is himself a schoolteacher, he likens school to a jail, saying that it is too regimented and that, “real education is in life’s experiences”. He therefore decides that Gopinath will be taught at home until the fifth standard or grade. Not unexpectedly, both the Sainik School and the National Defence Academy, in which Gopinath subsequently enrolls, are highly regimented in contrast, and Gopinath says that he “deeply resented” and “hated” this.

The second contradiction is between equality and hierarchy. Gopinath’s father imbues him with a sense of equality, disapproving of the superior status that the Brahmins (of which he was one) in their village held with respect to the artisan class and Dalits. The army is, in comparison, hierarchical, and on the last page of this chapter, Gopinath describes his discomfort in occupying a position of formal superiority over junior commissioned officers and jawans. I’m interested to see how these contradictions play out in Gopinath’s life, and whether they contribute to his later decisions to leave the army and start Deccan Airlines.

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