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Deciphering 2021 with 15 riveting reads

(Clockwise from top left:) Zomato chief executive Deepinder Goyal, technicians at an ONGC plant, GCPPL founder A.Mahendran, people being rescued by the Indian Navy during cyclone TauktaePremium
(Clockwise from top left:) Zomato chief executive Deepinder Goyal, technicians at an ONGC plant, GCPPL founder A.Mahendran, people being rescued by the Indian Navy during cyclone Tauktae

Mint’s Long Story page is where we embrace the challenge of delving deep into a story and telling it well every day of the week. This space allowed us, over the course of a year, to report on and explore a wide range of stories that captured the zeitgeist. From the D2C revolution to the turnaround at Wipro, from climate change slowing India’s windmills to the stock trading revolution sweeping India, we captured the trends shaping the nation. Here are 15 stories that highlight the breadth and depth of our reporting, from among the 240 long stories we published in 2021.

The dangerous failure to stop tainted remdesivir

In this hair-raising long read, Priyanka Pulla investigates one firm’s substandard medication during the pandemic’s deadly second wave. In May 2021, over a dozen hospitals across Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Bihar reported patients falling sick after getting remdesivir. The batches overlapped, and the manufacturer was always Cadila. Most state drug regulators acted in a haphazard manner, declaring the batches to be of standard quality without testing them fully. Only Bihar’s regulator identified the cause. Their testing found Cadila’s batch V100167 to contain bacterial endotoxins—compounds present in the protective envelopes of bacteria, which cause fever, chills and life-threatening septic shock.

The trouble with Zomato’s investments

This story delivers enough food for thought to those who invested in Zomato’s super successful IPO. Varun Sood deep dives into the company’s string of start-up investments, potential red flags for investors. The food delivery company invested in startups such as Shiprocket, Magicpin, and Curefit. Some analysts don’t think these investments are strategically important for Zomato’s core business—there aren’t any direct synergies. In fact, the financial investments can boomerang. Currently, most valuations across asset classes are frothy. Any correction in the future could lead to Zomato booking a higher mark to market loss. Experts also point to another problem. Chief executive Deepinder Goyal had made personal investments in startups Zomato later invested in. That raises corporate governance concerns.

The hunt for another Bombay High

The Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) is 65 years old. Yet, strangely, ONGC has had no significant hydrocarbon find for at least a decade. The firm’s crude oil production has also dropped consistently. The fall in domestic production matters especially at a time when India has repeatedly locked horns with international suppliers over crude oil prices. In this piece, Kalpana Pathak explores why the oil behemoth now needs to shed some flab. The firm remains India’s best bet to shore up oil security and a combination of organizational restructuring and new technology could put ONGC back in the exploration game.

The app that’s making Dish TV investors see red

2021 was a year of many conflicts and Dish TV has been at the centre of some of them. Gopika Gopakumar and Varun Sood investigate the unfolding drama between the media house and its largest shareholder. In April 2019, Dish TV set up Watcho, an OTT app. The management reasoned that producing original content was one way to help get more business from subscribers, many of whom were spending more waking hours consuming movies and television series offered by streaming platforms. However, the investment became a major sticking point with shareholder Yes Bank. The concern: the investments, amounting to more than 1,378 crore, have not been adequately explained.

The anatomy of an inexplicable firesale

In this fascinating read, Suneera Tandon writes on the strange tale of how two multinational investors exited a 500 crore investment for peanuts. After A. Mahendran stepped down as managing director of Godrej Consumer Products nearly a decade ago, he decided to put his energies into a new consumer goods startup. Goldman Sachs and Japanese conglomerate Mitsui came on board as investors in the new venture, Global Consumer Products Pvt Ltd (GCPPL). Cumulatively, the two invested more than 500 crore. In June 2021, the two investors signed away their ownership in the company for just 5 lakh. GCPPL’s ambitious plans didn’t quite work out but still, it has little liability, more than 100 crore in revenue and 35 crore of available cash on its books. Why would someone sell such a company this cheap?

L&T’s great swing from infra to IT services

This is the tale of a great pivot, from building things to providing services. Larsen and Toubro is almost a byword for large-scale infrastructure projects. However, the conglomerate’s revenues from its traditional strongholds have plateaued over the last five years, as have their profit margins. In contrast, the revenue from its three key IT subsidiaries are contributing to a larger share of the consolidated topline, especially after the acquisition of Mindtree. Even if L&T is not consciously de-emphasising infra as a segment, the fact that the IT subsidiaries account for a large chunk of L&T’s margin profile is now changing the nature of the firm, writes Tanya Thomas.

How climate change is slowing India’s windmills

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) was held in Glasgow in 2021. While the summit deliberated on ways to mitigate temperature increases, there is another clear and present danger for India—monsoon that brings along wind. They fuel the turbines. However, monsoon gusts are inexplicably slowing. That puts India’s renewable energy transition and the country’s global climate obligations at stake. But why are wind patterns changing? Utpal Bhaskar answers in this report filled with great insights.

Forgive us for asking, but what’s Cred’s business model?

It’s a question that everyone—employees, other entrepreneurs, investors, people on Twitter—asks Kunal Shah: what’s your business model? When Mihir Dalal wrote the story, Cred, the company Shah founded, had just launched three business lines: lending, where it offers a line of credit to users from banks at lower-than-average interest; rent payments, where it takes a cut off payments; and commissions charged on products and services sold on its app. Can these revenue initiatives make the business viable?

How ICICI Bank got back into the ring

Gopika Gopakumar and Shayan Ghosh write on an executive known to douse corporate fires. Sandeep Bakhshi was the man who turned around ICICI Pru. What he delivered made him the shoo-in candidate to restore the credibility of ICICI Bank. He took over the bank in late 2018. In just 10 quarters, sweeping changes had been engineered—the lender renewed its focus on quality assets, shedding its earlier single-minded attention to growth.

The inside story of a high sea rescue

Between 9.15 and 9.30am on 17 May, the Indian Navy’s Maritime Operations Centre in Kochi, Kerala, received an SOS that the anchor ropes of a construction barge had given way. Cyclone Tauktae had struck. The lives of 714 people on-board five vessels that were carrying out work for ONGC were at risk. Then began one of the biggest offshore search and rescue operation ever carried out in the Arabian Sea. Kalpana Pathak captures this dramatic story of desperation and bravery.

The death of India’s single-screen cinemas

Let’s go back to the disastrous months of 2021—April and May—when the pandemic’s deadly second wave peaked. Alongside life, the economic picture blurred, too. The movie business, for instance. Theatres in some states were shut indefinitely. The consequence: nearly 20% of India’s movie screens, especially properties of independent owners in north India, weren’t able to withstand the loss in revenues. A generation of entrepreneurs whose lives revolved around cinema needed to find ways to move on. Lata Jha comes up with a heart-breaking tale.

The Frenchman steadying Wipro’s ship

When Frenchman Thierry Delaporte took the CEO’s job at Indian IT services major Wipro Ltd, the currents had not been in the company’s favour. In 2018-19, for the first time in its history, it had fallen to the fourth position by revenues among India’s IT majors. Wipro used to be the second largest by revenue during most of the early days of India’s IT story—from 1984 to 1998—and, since then, had held on to the third position, behind Tata Consultancy Services Ltd and Infosys Ltd. But losing the third position to HCL Technologies Ltd came as a sharp reminder that the company was falling behind in the IT sweepstakes. Today, Delaporte has a nascent yet credible turnaround story to tell. Ayushman Baruah decodes that story.

Inside HDFC Bank’s digital stumble

Subsequent to the initial spate of digital transaction failures in 2019, HDFC Bank suffered at least two other major online outages. Customers complained again and again and the bank apologized. But it was to become a pattern. Customer complaints would be followed by news reports, the bank would say sorry, and life would go on. At a loss to explain what was going on, analysts questioned the bank at regular intervals, trying to push for a substantial response. The bank continued to offer abstruse explanations, holding back more than it gave away. What exactly was going on? Shayan Ghosh and Kalpana Pathak try to unearth in this long read.

How India got blindsided by a black fungus outbreak

In this engrossing piece, Priyanka Pulla examines why mucormycosis—commonly and incorrectly referred to as Black Fungus—ravaged lives during the pandemic. India clocked over 40,845 cases, and 3,129 deaths until 28 June. The outbreak left thousands dead or disabled after facial surgeries to remove portions of infected eyes, noses or jaws. Despite early signals in 2020, India remained deeply unprepared for the devastating second outbreak. Amphotericin B stocks—the best drug available for treatment—ran out across India, likely pushing up fatality rates. How could have India handled the outbreak better? Its impact might have been blunted if research into fungal diseases was not so chronically neglected.

Carcinogenic toxins: banned elsewhere, sold in India

In June 2018, the European drug regulator learnt that batches of a drug called valsartan had high levels of a potent carcinogen called N-Nitroso-dimethylamine or NDMA. Since the initial finding in 2018, the European regulator, US FDA, Health Canada and Australia’s TGA have discovered not just NDMA but several other related compounds in a variety of drugs. Elsewhere in the world, the findings have been followed by recalls and suspension of sales of contaminated batches. In India, however, the pharma industry has been left to its own devices. Priyanka Pulla raises a pertinent question: why has India’s drug regulator done so little to protect citizens?

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