2019: South Asia in Review
2019: South Asia in Review

We’re highlighting the 10 trends we saw in 2019 and the five trends brewing in 2020.

We’re highlighting the 10 trends we saw in 2019 and the five trends brewing in 2020. For our predictions last year, we were quite spot on — click here.

The ten big trends we saw in 2019:

Chinese fishing nets in Kochi (Wikimedia)

Chinese fishing nets in Kochi (Wikimedia)

1. India goes the way of China

India is taking cues from China — it’s building a nation that protects its businesses, uses tech to increase state control, and isn’t afraid to retaliate.

For one, India is increasing surveillance — it’s planning to build a nationwide facial recognition system that captures data via cameras, similar to China’s.

India in 2019 also used regulations to control outside tech companies while increasing state control. It introduced a personal data protection bill that protects an individual's data from companies like Facebook and Amazon — but the government is exempt. The law would move India closer to both Europe (GDPR) and China (where its government tightly controls the internet).

Meanwhile, India investigated Google for stifling local rivals via its antitrust body. In India, 99% of smartphones run on Google’s Android; globally, that number is 88%. And only a few days after China halted sales of JUUL, India banned e-cigs. India has ~106m adult smokers — second only to China.

It’s not just Western-based companies that have come under scrutiny in India. India also drafted a law that would regulate Chinese social media apps in India. Targeting user-generated content apps with over 5 million Indian users, the new rules — similar to those in China — would require owners to establish a local Indian office, appoint a senior official accountable for legal concerns, and implement "automated tools” to help prevent the spreading of unlawful or wrong information. Chinese apps TikTok, Like, and Helo were among the top 10 Android apps last year: 39% of TikTok users are in India, its biggest foreign market, and 64% of Like’s users are Indian. 

India has even banned Chinese apps. Police arrested 10 students in Gujarat for playing Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battleground (PUBG), India’s most popular game, which was temporarily banned for being too violent and addictive. An India court also banned TikTok, which purportedly lost out on 15 million downloads during the two-week ban, for pornography, cyberbullying, and sexual predators. Indian apps such as ShareChat have increased lobbying to protect their turf as Chinese apps enter the Indian market due to increased regulation and competition in China. 

India and the U.S. also had a mini trade war in 2019. The 1970s U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program provides duty-free U.S. entry, aimed to give developing countries a leg up. India is the largest beneficiary, with $5 billion of exports under GSP and $190 million a year in duty reduction. The U.S. ended this benefit in 2019. The U.S. and India had $126 billion in trade in 2017 and the U.S. ran a goods and services deficit of $27 billion. In response, in June, India increased tariffs on certain U.S. goods, including almonds, apples, walnuts, and finished metal products — the duty on walnuts went up 120%.

India, like China, is also retaliating economically — and isn’t afraid to. After China refused to blacklist the head of Jaish-e-Mohammad, the militant group responsible for Kashmir's February 14 suicide bombing, #BoycottChineseProducts trended on Indian Twitter. The damage can be real: Chinese smartphones have held the top four positions in India for several years.

India is also cozying up to Apple (and vice versa) — a play seen before in China. India eased rules mandating that companies such as Apple source 30% of production locally. The requirement now needs to be met as an average for the first five-year period, not annually. The move is one of the biggest recent liberalizations India has taken — likely to boost its slowing economy, to curb Chinese company Xiaomi’s significant market share (29%), and to show the world that Indians can afford premium Apple phones, too. This move also allows Apple to rely less on its Chinese supply chain. Contractor Foxconn now assembles the iPhone X, XR, and XS in Tamil Nadu, India, avoiding import taxes and lowering prices. Local assembly also allows Apple finally to open retail stores in India, where only 1% own Apple devices.

Lastly, the NBA now views India as the next China. India hosted its first NBA preseason game in Mumbai in October 2019. Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner — who also attended India’s independence day parade in New York City in 2019 — hopes to increase the league’s revenues from international games from 20% to 50% in the next 20 years and to replicate basketball’s success in China, where its operations are valued at $4 billion. India seems like a safer bet after a snafu with Chinese officials when an NBA official commenting on the Hong Kong protests. But if 2019 indicated anything, it was that India uses China’s tactics, especially as it increases its bargaining power and place in the world. After all, in 2018, it overtook France to become the fifth-largest economy.

The flag of India (Naveed Ahmed)

The flag of India (Naveed Ahmed)

2. A more Hindu nationalist India, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, redefines Indian citizenship

India’s long march to becoming a Hindu nation started gaining traction in the 1990s but Indians of all faiths finally reacted in 2019. The movement started with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), initially a fringe organization, which believes that centuries of non-Hindu rule have left India without a strong Hindu culture. One of its most famous alumni is Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi because he disagreed with Gandhi’s efforts to reconcile Hindus and Muslims. The RSS refers to Muslims in India, who make up 14% of the population, as "invaders."

RSS’s political wing, the BJP, was also on the fringe. Yet, the BJP and the RSS came into the spotlight in 1992, when the RSS called for the razing of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, which the Mughals built in the 16th century. Ayodhya is holy for Hindus; it is Ram’s birthplace. That razing would lead to Hindu-Muslim violence, such as the Bombay riots of 1992-3; thousands died.

Many attribute Narendra Modi’s rise to the RSS, with which he was involved in his youth. Since Modi’s first election in 2014, the formation of a Hindu nation can be seen in everything from the rewriting of school curricula, to the renaming of cities such as Allahabad (now Prayagraj). Much of this seems to have been countenanced due to promises of a better economy, or “achhe din.” But those “achhe din” have not materialized — India’s growth has slowed.  

The attempt to redefine Indian citizenship began as early as January 8, 2019, when the lower house first passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019. Under the proposed law, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist, and Jain asylum-seekers — all non-Muslims — need to prove only five years of residence instead of 11 to gain citizenship. This led to protests in Assam, where locals feared that they would lose their jobs to illegal Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants; the bill couldn’t move past the upper house.

But Modi’s BJP won in 2019 with an even larger parliamentary majority than it did in 2014. Modi had pulled out all the stops before 2019’s election, including ordering a February 26 airstrike to retaliate against the JeM suicide bombing in Pulwama, Kashmir, and posing with Bollywood celebrities in a controversial photo, though the film industry is known for being secular.

This resounding BJP win gave the party the mandate to make larger moves; some also say that Modi faced pressure from the RSS to execute elements of the Hindutva agenda he may have ignored during his first term. The government piloted the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. The NRC is a list of people who can prove they came to Assam before neighboring Bangladesh declared independence. A third of the state's 32 million residents are Muslim. It’s easy to be excluded if one cannot produce documents or lacks the money to file a legal appeal. The NRC list rendered 1.9 million stateless.

On November 9, 2019, India’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of placing the contested three acres of Babri Masjid in a government trust and greenlit the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of Babri Masjid. It also ruled that Muslims would get five acres to build a mosque in Ayodhya.

Then, on December 12, 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 was signed into law after passing both the lower and upper houses of Parliament, becoming the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Critics fear that Muslims who can’t prove their citizenship under NRC can’t get expedited naturalization.

By that night, India had shut down Assam’s internet, deployed troops, and imposed a curfew. What began as protests by students at a Delhi university has snowballed into a national movement. Over 1,500 protestors were arrested in the first 10 days of protests; at least 19 were killed.

If India is increasingly intolerant of non-Hindus, why would Muslim immigrants decide to go to India? Usually, there’s no other option, due to everything from climate change to genocide (the Rohingya from Burma) or even faith-based discrimination within Muslim-majority countries.

India’s Supreme Court has agreed to hear over 48 challenges to the constitutionality of CAA, which could have fast-tracked citizenship for all persecuted asylum-seekers. Expect more controversy on both sides, supporters and detractors alike. 

→ Go deeper: Modi’s Hindu Bubble, Where Politics in India and California Collide

Dal Lake, Srinagar. (Wikimedia)

Dal Lake, Srinagar. (Wikimedia)

3. Kashmir

We predicted at the end of 2018 that trouble would brew in Kashmir in 2019. Kashmir has long been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan; China also claims part of it — and it only got worse in 2019. 

On February 14, 2019, a suicide bomb attack killed 44 Indian soldiers in Indian-occupied Kashmir. Terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) claimed responsibility.

Modi blamed Pakistan, accusing it of supporting Kashmiri jihadists and terrorist organizations. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir since the 1947 partition. Kashmir had a Hindu prince but a Muslim-majority citizenry, which made it unclear whether Kashmir should be part of Muslim Pakistan or secular India. India insisted that Pakistan must leave Kashmir before they held a referendum to let Kashmiris vote to decide their fate. Pakistan hasn’t left and India hasn’t held the referendum. Many Kashmiris today hope for self-rule and want both Pakistan and India out. Insurgents in Indian-controlled Kashmir have been fighting Indian control since 1989, after a state election was perceived to be rigged. 

In response to the attack, on February 26, 2019, India launched an airstrike in Pakistan targeting a purported JeM terrorist camp. India claimed the airstrike killed 300 jihadis, while Pakistan officials said India hit an uninhabited jungle.

The Pulwama crisis escalated tensions between India and Pakistan. Both recalled their ambassadors. India withdrew Pakistan’s most-favored nation trade status, though trade is relatively small at $2 billion a year. A Bengaluru bakery had to remove the word “Karachi” from its name, Kashmiri students in India were harassed, and Indian film companies boycotted Pakistani actors. It was even unclear if India would play Pakistan in June as part of a cricket World Cup match (it did). Some argued that Pakistan and India used lies and untruths to help de-escalate the conflict.  

During the Pulwama crisis, a Pakistani American asked Priyanka Chopra why she tweeted #JaiHind during India’s airstrikes against Pakistan, seeming to promote war even though she is a UNICEF ambassador. Chopra’s answer dismissed the audience member’s concerns.

Then, on August 5, months after Modi won reelection, he revoked Article 370, which had granted Indian-occupied Muslim-majority Kashmir special semi-autonomous status. This status had given Kashmiris rights to jobs, scholarships, and land ownership, along with their own constitution and decision-making process in all matters except defense, communications, and foreign affairs. India sent an additional 10,000 troops into the region, asked tourists to leave Jammu & Kashmir, cut mobile and internet services, and put local politicians — such as pro-India Kashmiri politico Farooq Abdullah — under house arrest. Abdullah was a former chief minister of Indian-administered Jammu & Kashmir and is the son of renowned Kashmiri politico Sheikh Abdullah. The move led to protests in Kashmir and across the diaspora.

The UN Security Council met to discuss Kashmir for the first time since the Indo-Pak war of 1971 on Friday, August 16. Permanent member China said it was “seriously concerned” while permanent member Russia said the issue was best left to India and Pakistan. The U.S. — and sometimes Russia — is a traditional backer of India; China backs Pakistan. Nothing more came of the meeting.

At the UN General Assembly in September 2019, the Malaysia Prime Minister had said that India had “invaded and occupied” Kashmir. Indian traders called for a boycott of Malaysian palm oil, for which India is the third-biggest market. Modi canceled a trip to Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized India’s Kashmir move.

India partially restored post-paid mobile phone services in Kashmir on Monday, October 14, over two months since the start of the region’s lockdown on August 5. Kashmir now has had one of the longest internet shutdowns, at 158 days. On October 31, 2019, India formally divided Jammu & Kashmir into two union territories — 1) Jammu & Kashmir and 2) Buddhist enclave Ladakh.

Modi justified the move as an economic one: to free the region’s economic potential. But Kashmir outperforms India on life expectancy, literacy, poverty, and GDP growth — though it lags in private investment. Kashmir has also long been a global tourist attraction and produces iconic exports, including Pashmina shawls, basmati rice, and saffron.

The situation in Kashmir is still unresolved for many Kashmiris.

→ Go deeper: How Activism Has Changed for Kashmiri Americans, Red Dots for Kashmir Can Only Do So Much, Juggernaut twitter

Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Wikimedia)

Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Wikimedia)

4. Two elections in conflict-prone states with narrow victories: Sri Lanka and Afghanistan

Sri Lanka entered another period of crisis after relative peace for a few years. On April 21, 2019, a series of coordinated suicide bombings went off across the country, concentrated in the capital, Colombo. The first blasts targeted Christians at churches in Colombo, Negombo, and Batticaloa. The next targeted three high-end hotels in Colombo. Over 250 died and at least 500 were wounded. 

President Maithripala Sirisena imposed emergency rule. The nine suicide bombers were mostly from educated, middle- or upper-class backgrounds. Two of the bombers are sons of wealthy spice tycoon Mohamed Yusuf Ibrahim. Though ISIS claimed responsibility, no link has been found; the National Thowheed Jamath, a local extremist group, was a clearer link. India claims it had informed Sri Lanka of the plot weeks before.

The emergency gave police and military extensive powers to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders and tensions flared between the majority Buddhist (70%) and minority Muslim (10%) populations. 

But this was enough of a prelude for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to be voted in as president. Rajapaksa has been accused of war crimes during Sri Lanka’s civil war, which ended in 2009, between the Sinhalese-majority Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers; he was Secretary to the Ministry of Defence from 2005 to 2015, during part of the civil war. 

Over 16 million Sri Lankans went to the polls on November 16. “Strongman” Rajapaksa won 52% of the vote vs. Sajith Premadasa’s 42%. Many were swayed by Rajapaksa’s economic pitch; the economy boomed during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidential term from 2005 to 2015, but debt, particularly to China, also grew. Rajapaksa has appointed his brother as prime minister. Gotabaya acknowledged that the country’s Tamils and Muslims, who together make up 25% of the population, didn’t vote for him. Gotabaya appointed a 16-member interim Cabinet and assigned finance, economic affairs, housing, urban development, and other ministries to his brother, too. 

Critics fear a return to Rajapaksa rule will mean more authoritarianism and increased intolerance of non-Buddhists.

Meanwhile, in 2019, Afghanistan also voted in its fourth presidential elections since the Taliban’s removal from power in 2001. Of Afghanistan’s 35 million people, 9.6 million are registered to vote. Candidates run for a five-year term. Leading candidates were incumbent Ashraf Ghani and chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah. The two had to divide power after the purportedly fraudulent 2014 elections. The country’s election commission claims to have installed new safeguards, such as biometric devices that record voters’ fingerprints and photos and scanning barcodes on national ID card stickers. The race was tight — Ghani won with a slim majority of 50.6% of the vote; there were reports of voter suppression and violence at polls.

Before election results were announced, an exclusive Washington Post investigation found that U.S. officials were lying about their progress during the 18-year war in Afghanistan after looking through over 2,000 pages of interviews, the byproduct of a project led by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), created by Congress in 2008 to investigate waste and fraud in the war zone. 

The Post won the release of the documents under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle. Since 2001, over 775,000 US troops have been deployed to Afghanistan. Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department, and USAID have spent or appropriated as much as $978 billion. It was common practice to distort statistics to make it appear that the U.S. was winning the war. U.S. officials also tried to create a democratic government in Afghanistan modeled after their own but Afghans were more accustomed to tribalism, monarchism, communism, and Islamic law. Since 2001, roughly 157,000 have been killed in the war in Afghanistan, including Afghan security forces (64,000), Afghan civilians (43,000), Taliban fighters/insurgents (42,000), and many more. 

The U.S. tried to get out of Afghanistan by brokering peace talks with the Taliban for all of 2019. In early September, President Donald Trump declared Afghan peace talks “dead.” Now the Afghan government, earlier left out of the peace process, has stepped in, saying that it will negotiate with the Taliban post-election, though some argue Afghanistan may not be able to survive a U.S. exit

Mount Everest (Wikimedia)

Mount Everest (Wikimedia)

5. Nepal’s Everest becomes a death trap

In Nepal, Everest became a danger zone in 2019. After 11 climbers (nine on the Nepalese side) died in May, Nepal now requires that all Everest climbers have climbed at least one Nepalese peak higher than 6,500 meters (21,325 feet), submitted a certificate of fitness, and be accompanied by a Nepalese guide. The committee also proposed a $35,000 fee for climbing Everest. Nepal is home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains. Before, anyone who paid $11,000 could climb Everest. 

The problem isn’t bad weather conditions but rather overcrowding on the mountain with too many inexperienced climbers, all due to Nepal granting a record number of Everest permits — 381 — this year. If people get held up in the lines on the last 1,000 feet of the climb, they may not have enough oxygen to ascend and descend fast enough. The bottlenecks in the “death zone,” which has dangerously low oxygen levels, are particularly lethal. 

Everest has become a tourist trap — Nepal is also notorious for fraudulent insurance companies or service providers that report inflated costs to insurance companies to earn money.

→ Related: John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight episode on Everest

Textile magnate mansion in Satkhira, Bangladesh (David Baker)

Textile magnate mansion in Satkhira, Bangladesh (David Baker)

6. India and Pakistan slow, Bangladesh speeds up

As India and Pakistan’s growth slowed, Bangladesh sped up. India is no longer the world’s fastest-growing major economy and Pakistan had to take a bailout.

Pakistan in 2019 took a $6 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in response to a balance of payments crisis that has led to a dwindling foreign exchange and increasing trade deficit. Loans from China and Saudi Arabia were not enough to get Pakistan out of its dire financial straits. Pakistan will have to reduce government spending, increase taxes, and let its exchange rate be determined by the market. It will also have to reduce state-owned enterprise losses, increase the price of electricity, and broaden its tax base — only 1 million of Pakistan’s 208 million pay taxes. The agreement will likely open up $2 billion in additional financing from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The country’s central bank revised Pakistan’s GDP growth target down to 3.5% from 6%. The country’s last IMF bailout was in 2013 for $6.6b.

Across the border, in Q1’19, India’s economy grew 5.8%, down from 6.6% in Q4’18, and slower than China’s 6.4% — the first time India’s growth rate has been slower than China’s in nearly two years and the slowest growth rate in 17 quarters. Slowing investment and lower domestic consumption are partly to blame. The slowdown has affected everything from Unilever sales to gold purchases. Over half of the 100 richest people in India even saw their wealth decline in 2019. Modi's promise to nearly double India’s GDP to $5t by 2024 would require GDP to increase by 14% every year over the next five years. Meanwhile, annual GDP growth slipped to a five-year low of 6.8% in 2018-9. 

Unemployment numbers are also at a 45-year high of 6.1%, after being below 3% for decades. The unemployment rate in October 2019 rose to 8.5%, its highest since August 2016, though the government estimates that urban unemployment has declined. That said, this might not be wholly reliable since the government has suppressed data before: it withheld unemployment data, scheduled for release in December. Roughly a third of India’s unemployed are likely the highly educated young. GDP growth is mostly in industries such as software engineering, which created fewer jobs. Underspending on education and health as well as a growing population doesn’t help — a new UN report states that by 2027, India will have more people than China. India (1.3b) and China (1.4b) already account for 37% of the world’s population. 

India now also tops the world in bad loans. A bad debt crisis in India’s shadow banking system led to a cash crunch. India’s 9.6% bad debt ratio in June is the worst among the world’s major economies. Though the Reserve Bank of India requested that the 12 biggest delinquent borrowers be pushed to bankruptcy in 2017, only six have been resolved so far. 

The Modi government is attempting to kickstart growth more by promoting investment and business spending with several measures. The Reserve Bank of India cut interest rates to encourage more consumer borrowing and consumption (cash sitting in the bank won’t earn as much as it used to). Some believe commercial banks will still be slow to cut lending rates by a similar scale since many have bad loans, and fear losing customers if they cut deposit rates.

Modi’s also government cut the corporate tax rate in September and sped up privatization of state-run firms. Profits made by Indian companies will now be taxed at 22%, down from 30%, as long as the companies don’t apply for incentives or exemptions. Manufacturing firms incorporated after October 2019 will be taxed at 15% instead of 25%, as long as they start production by March 2023. Indian stock markets surged with the Sensex up over 5% and the Indian rupee rising 0.5% against the dollar at the news. India also announced a $1.4b fund to complete unfinished affordable and middle-income housing projects to help boost economic demand. The affluent will pay more taxes: a 25% surcharge on those earning $292,000-730,000 a year, and 37% surcharge for those earning over $730,000 a year. 

It’s unclear how much of the government’s initiatives to spur growth will work in 2020 — the last global recession started almost 12 years ago and some fear that one might be coming soon.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s growth rate sped up, surpassing India to hit 7.2% in 2019, fueled by growing manufacturing and textile sectors. That doesn’t mean all is well in Bangladesh — it still suffers from housing a large-scale refugee crisis and shifting climates.

TikTok videos (TikTok)

TikTok videos (TikTok)

7. Forget the Belt and Road Initiative; China gets in via investment or loans (some needed because of BRI)

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s grand infrastructure plan to invest in and manage ports and roads around the world, slowed down in 2019 as countries wised up to the debt they would have to sustain. Sri Lanka wants its Hambantota Port back. The Maldives is looking to India to help invest in its infrastructure projects, as is Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, due to BRI, the Maldives owes $600 million to China — with full exposure as high as $3 billion (Maldives GDP was $4.9b in 2017) — and is hoping to renegotiate its debt.

China’s grip on the region via BRI may just be loosening. But that doesn’t mean there are other tactics.

To cover the $2.6b of debt it owes in the first quarter (of $6b total), Sri Lanka is opting for cheap loans from China. China lent Pakistan $2b to shore up the Pakistani rupee

In India, specifically, Chinese tech companies might be fulfilling the government’s ambitions by investing large checks in Indian companies or cultivating large Indian user bases.

Alibaba invested $100m into Indian mobile video-sharing app Vmate, which has 30m global users and is owned by subsidiary UC Web. Alibaba is also one of India’s biggest tech investors, with money in Paytm, BigBasket, Zomato, and Snapdeal. ByteDance, the world’s most valuable private tech company, pledges to invest $1 billion in India over the next few years. China tech giant Tencent has invested in Times Internet-owned Gaana, ed-tech startup Byju’s, and ride-sharing service Ola. China’s travel booking platform Ctrip, the world’s second-largest after Booking Holdings, now owns 49% of India’s MakeMyTrip. 

When it comes expanding user bases, India is Bytedance’s TikTok’s largest market, with over 120 million monthly active users and 400 million downloads. E-commerce platform ClubFactory, which raised a $100m Series D in 2019, counts 40 million Indians among its 70 million total users and is the third most popular e-commerce app in India, surpassing Snapdeal. 

Despite India trying to keep China in check with regulation, Chinese companies had developed 44 of the top 100 Android apps in India, up from just 18 last year. They include TikTok, local language news app Helo, Alibaba’s UC Browser, Tencent-backed NewsDog, and Like (Bollywood actors such as Ranveer Singh have promoted it on Instagram). Learning from WeChat's failure in India, Chinese companies are building local teams to build localized apps and content for the Indian audience.

Then, some non-China companies are using Chinese money to grow large user bases in India. Ad-supported video streaming app MX Player raised a $111m Series A at a $500m valuation, led by Tencent and Times Internet, which had acquired a $140m majority stake in MX Player in 2017. MX Player is headquartered in Singapore but its largest market is India, with 175m monthly active users of its 280 million global users. 

Lastly, beyond tech, physical retail businesses, too, are eyeing India. China coffee startup Luckin plans to launch in India, competing with Starbucks and homegrown Cafe Coffee Day. 

Though the relationship between India and China has been fraught in recent years (China traditionally backs Pakistan), China still loves Bollywood. When Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan made his first trip to China in 2019, fans mobbed him.

Netlfix original Ghee Happy (Netflix)

Netlfix original Ghee Happy (Netflix)

8. The streaming wars intensify, leading to more South Asian content

It’s important to note how much the mobile landscape changed in India due to cheap mobile data, spurred by Reliance Jio. There are now 450 million smartphone users and 500 million internet users in India. Data is so cheap that Indian smartphone users are surfing the web through videos, without wifi and Indians became so crazy about mobile video, they use YouTube like Google. In 2019, Whatsapp hit 400m MAUs in India, up from 200m in 2017, becoming WhatsApp’s biggest market of its global 1.5 billion users. Amid this context, it’s easy to see why global streaming giants, from Netflix to Spotify to Amazon to Disney’s Hotstar, are chasing the India market.

In audio streaming, Spotify finally convinced Indian music label T-Series to sign a deal, which immediately expanded its Indian music library by over 160,000 songs and gave it the confidence to launch in India. T-Series has the world’s most-viewed YouTube channel, racking up 58 billion views since its 2006 launch. Spotify added 1 million listeners in India within its first week of launch. The streaming giant is up against steep competition, including Reliance’s JioSaavn and Apple Music. Spotify’s premium, ad-free tier costs $1.67/month, on par with Apple Music. Of India’s 450m internet users, 94% listen to music online. In the battle for the ears of Indian consumers, Apple cut its monthly subscription from $1.73/mo to $1.43/mo, matching the monthly prices of Indian players JioSaavn, the country’s most popular service, and Gaana. 

On the heels of Spotify’s launch, YouTube launched ad-supported free YouTube Music and YouTube Music Premium (~$1.44/mo) and YouTube Premium (~$1.87/mo). YouTube Premium offers extended offline plays and access to original programming, like Cobra Kai. Today, more than 300 Indian creators have over one million subscribers on YouTube, up from just 16 in 2014. 

Amazon also followed suit and, several months later, launched Audible Suno in India. Audible Suno offers free, ad-free access to 60+ exclusive, original episodes of 20-60 minutes each, both in Hindi and English. Celebrities on Audible Suno include Amitabh Bachchan, Katrina Kaif, Karan Johar, Anil Kapoor, Anurag Kashyap, Tabu, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Vir Das.

For video streaming, Disney’s Hotstar dominated Netflix and Amazon in India. It now has 300 million monthly users, ~10% more than YouTube. It also commands 3 million paying subscribers, more than Amazon (2.5 million) and Netflix (1.2 million). Amazon and Netflix are now copying Hotstar’s strategy: low prices and content in multiple Indian languages. Hotstar says its rivals can’t match its library of shows — Star India is a 28-year-old network of over 10 Indian TV channels — or its exclusive access to Indian Premier League cricket. Disney owns Hotstar after its $71b Fox deal in March. 

Though other parts of South Asia haven’t had the same traction in streaming (they don’t all have Reliance Jio’s cheap data, after all), other local companies have emerged, like Bongo, the “Netflix of Bangladesh.”

To win the streaming wars, and to win over South Asian and non-South Asian audiences interested in concepts such as the South Asian wedding, streaming companies have invested more in South Asia-focused content. Global video streaming companies are realizing that it’s important to cater to these tastes and bring South Asian sensibility to global content. Netflix India originals Sacred Games and Mighty Little Bheem have garnered millions of viewers outside India — the latter is now the second-most popular Netflix original kids series worldwide.

Warren Ellis will work with executive producers Adi Shankar and Kevin Kolde to produce Heaven’s Forest, a Ramayana-inspired animated action drama series for Netflix. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger will be made into a Netflix film starring Priyanka Chopra and Rajkummar Rao. Manu Joseph’s Serious Men, a novel about a man who cons the world into believing his son is a genius, will become a Netflix original.

Netflix’s other South Asia-focused shows include Ghee Happy (“Ghee Khushi”), a preschool show that reimagines Hindu deities as children who discover their powers while attending daycare. The show is animated by Pixar director Sanjay Patel, who worked on The Incredibles (2004) and short film Sanjay’s Super Team. Disney is also investing in shows for global Indian audiences, such as Mira, Royal Detective

More Bollywood stars are also appearing in Hollywood, such as Dimple Kapadia in Christopher Nolan film Tenet, Deepika Padukone in a Xander Cage sequel, and Shah Rukh Khan on David Letterman. Preity Zinta is starring in American sitcom Fresh Off the Boat.

Netflix plans to spend $420 million on content for 2019 and 2020 in India as part of its plan to add 100 million subscribers from the country; it has 4 million subscribers in India and 158 million subscribers in total, globally. In comparison, Hotstar was spending $17 million to produce seven original shows in 2019, while Eros Now has spent $50 million on 100 original shows. Netflix also rolled out its mobile-only plan in India in Q3, at $2.80 a month (₹199 a month). The plan is still more expensive than both Amazon Prime and Hotstar, which are ~$14.50 a year. 

Netflix India is profitable — in the financial year that ended in March, Netflix India posted $65 million in revenue and $0.72 million in profit — and it’s planning to double down by also expanding its 100-employee Mumbai team. 

Meanwhile, Amazon Studios has roped in Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas to produce a sangeet-cum-dance-competition reality tv show for Amazon Studios.

→ Go deeper: How a Radio Nation is Developing a Taste for Podcasts

Night view of India and Pakistan from the NASA International Space Station. (NASA)

Night view of India and Pakistan from the NASA International Space Station. (NASA)

9. Space

Space is the next big frontier, and an important part of South Asia, and specifically India, proving its muscle. 

India went all-in on space in 2019. It attempted, but failed, to become the fourth nation ever to land on the moon, after the United States, Soviet Union, and China. The Chandrayaan-2’s first-ever moon landing attempt on Friday, September 6, 2019, however, ended with a mysterious loss of signal from the Vikram lander at an altitude of just 2.1 km (1.3 miles) from the lunar surface. Officials later concluded that it had crashed on the surface. That said, the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter is doing well and could last well beyond its planned one-year mission. 

Meanwhile, Nepal and Sri Lanka launched their first satellites, NepaliSat-1 and Raavana 1, respectively, with the help of Japan’s Kyushu Institute of Technology. The satellites will collect information about each country’s topographies. 

India has already sanctioned $1.5 billion to fund its first manned mission to space, Gaganyaan (“space vehicle” in Sanskrit), by 2022, which would also mark 75 years of independence. India also plans to build a space station and unveiled Aditya-L1, a mission to study the Sun’s corona and its impact on Earth’s climate. Chandrayaan-2 remains one of the lowest-cost lunar missions at ~$150 million. 

Modi remarked after the event: "Sisters and brothers of India, resilience and tenacity are central to India's ethos. In our glorious history of thousands of years, we have faced moments that may have slowed us, but they have never crushed our spirit...We have bounced back again, and gone on to do spectacular things." 

Just across the border of Bangladesh near the Tamabil-Dawki checkpost on the Dawki river (Sayan Nath)

Just across the border of Bangladesh near the Tamabil-Dawki checkpost on the Dawki river (Sayan Nath)

10. Water

South Asia has a water problem — its store of potable water is rapidly declining. Twenty-one Indian cities, including Delhi and Bangalore, will start running short of groundwater by the end of 2020. 

Chennai, India's fifth-most populous city, underwent a severe water deficit due to poor management, groundwater overuse, and a changing climate. The region also went nearly 200 days without rain and experienced a major heatwave. Chennai has also gotten about 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit hotter over the past 60 years and has had its population grow by double-digit percentages every year since the 1940s. 

While Chennai is now dependent on imported water, India exports the most water-intensive goods in the world. India’s largest agricultural exports rice and cotton require thousands of liters of water per kilogram of product. Indian agriculture uses about 90% of freshwater vs. 64% in China, 60% in Brazil, and 44% in Nigeria. 

In recent years, unpredictable rains have caused both droughts and floods in India. In Bangalore, unregulated over-extraction by citizens has caused the water table to plunge to 1,000 feet in depth. But Bangalore gets 32 to 36 inches of rain a year — if the city caught half of that, it would have over 27 gallons per capita per day. The city could also funnel some of the harvested rain via “recharge wells” back into the groundwater. Better waste treatment plants could also increase water for agriculture and drinking. 

Meanwhile, Bangladesh declared its rivers ‘legal persons’ to give them a chance of survival. A high court granted the country’s rivers the right and status of “living entities” to save them from encroachment. Bangladesh’s rivers are struggling to survive due to illegal sand dredging and large-scale industrial pollution. Bangladesh will become the fourth country after Colombia, India, and New Zealand to grant its waterways this status. Some activists argue that the ruling makes Bangladesh’s riverside communities more vulnerable to eviction

Water has also led to disputes. As tensions between India and Pakistan increased in February, India threatened to divert a river that was providing water downstream to Pakistan. In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, a series of droughts led the court to take action and make a decision on the Cauvery River, which Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Puducherry, had been fighting over for nearly 200 years. The Supreme Court's solution was a fixed allocation of water for the next 15 years to the states, and the creation of an independent body to regulate the release of water from the river.


Five things brewing in 2020:

India's largest city (Wikimedia)

India's largest city (Wikimedia)

1. The Asian century (re)starts

Asia will matter more than ever in 2020 — especially its impact on the global economy.

History is about to come full circle. In the 1700s and early 1800s, China and India combined made up half the world’s GDP — in the 18th century, India’s share of the world economy was larger than Europe’s. Asia shrank proportionately as Western economies took off, powered by the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and colonialism. Now, Asian economies (adjusted for purchasing power parity, or PPP) will be larger than the rest of the world combined by 2020. Asia is already home to more than half the world’s population. Asia will also become home to half the world’s middle class by 2020. China is already a bigger economy than the US by PPP, accounting for 19% of the world’s output. India is the world’s third-largest economy by PPP, with GDP 2x that of Germany or Japan. By the 1950s, Asia accounted for less than 20% of world output, despite having more than half the world’s population. 

Reliance Jio Fiber (Reliance)

Reliance Jio Fiber (Reliance)

2. Reliance's Jio Fiber will revolutionize home and business internet, unleashing gaming and enterprise software

In 2019, India’s biggest telco, Reliance, launched Jio Fiber, or high-speed broadband services that cost $10 to $118 a month for 100Mbps-1Gbps speeds. The new plans will offer incentives such as free TVs, set-top boxes, and streaming service subscriptions. It’s in line with Reliance’s strategy that has helped it win 340 million telco customers since September 2016: low prices, generous discounts, and aggressive marketing. Already, 15 million have registered, with Reliance aiming for 20m users across 1,600 cities. BSNL (9.1m subs) and Airtel (2.4m subs) were India’s former top broadband providers.

Better internet in the home and workplace will unleash a new force in 2020. There will be more hardcore gaming and gamers, more video streaming, and more remote work opportunities. There’s an argument to be made that faster internet could even lead to more bit-torrenting or illegal downloading. For enterprises, faster internet means being unleashed from development requirements that optimize for latency and slow data; better internet access may also help digitize India’s myriad small businesses. 

That said, the product is clearly still aimed for the 1% of India and the Fiber website champions everything from gaming, smart TVs, and smart homes.

3. The International Court of Justice will rule against Myanmar in Rohingya case; nothing will come of it

Buddhist-majority Myanmar has allegations of committing genocide against its mostly Muslim Rohingya minority. In 2017, Myanmar’s security forces forced over 700,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh and thousands of Rohingya have been killed. Aung San Suu Kyi said, “it is still not easy to establish clear patterns of events,” adding, “It would not be helpful for the international legal order if the impression takes hold that only resource-rich countries can conduct adequate domestic investigations and prosecutions.” She argued that the campaign wasn’t underpinned by an intent to destroy the Rohingya ethnic group, a key element of genocide. 

The Gambia filed the case on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation in November 2019 and seeks to hold Myanmar accountable under the 1948 Genocide Convention, to which both are parties. It is asking the court to impose "provisional measures" to protect the Rohingya from further threats or violence. On November 14, the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an investigation into Rohingya persecution, while a third lawsuit was filed against Suu Kyi in an Argentine court due to the country’s experience with hearing universal jurisdiction cases against rulers, such as Spain's former dictator Francisco Franco. 

It’s inevitable. In 2020, the International Court of Justice will rule against Myanmar. Yet, nothing will come of it. The ICC has the mandate to make reparations through its Trust Fund for Victims but states can choose to ignore the recommendations of the ICJ.

At home, Suu Kyi has become increasingly popular and her National League for Democracy will go to the polls later this year. Meanwhile, the U.S. imposed sanctions on four Myanmar military leaders for alleged human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other minorities. 

The fate of the Rohingya are still unclear — Bangladesh is tired of supporting them and only non-Muslims seeking asylum in India will be fast-tracked. 

Mumbai Kranti Maidan protests, December 19, 2019 (Sanjena Sathian)

Mumbai Kranti Maidan protests, December 19, 2019 (Sanjena Sathian)

4. More protests against climate change, high unemployment, the government

South Asia has a relatively young population. For example, Pakistan’s youth is its largest in history: 120 million are under age 30 and make up 64% of the country's population. Pakistan also has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the region. 

In addition to unemployment, climate change is increasingly affecting every South Asian country, from smog in Lahore and Delhi to more frequent weather events in Bangladesh. Of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, 15 are in India; the list also includes Dhaka and Lahore.

Despite its investment in renewable energy, India is getting richer, which comes with increasing emissions. Even though India is the fastest builder of solar projects after China — with plans to more than quadruple renewables capacity — India is also quintupling its GDP by 2040, which requires more than doubling its energy demand. Though the West took advantage of “dirty” energy as it grew, China and India haven’t had the same opportunity

Before the 2019 elections, the government unveiled a five-year plan to reduce air pollution in 102 cities by 20% to 30% from 2017 levels by reducing industrial emissions, vehicular exhaust, and biomass burning. The plan has $91 million of funding over two years (vs. the $400m spent to build the world's tallest statue). PM 2.5 — the small particles that can be absorbed into the bloodstream — levels >50 are hazardous. 

Despite these pre-election promises, the air in Delhi got so bad that public officials declared a public health emergency and distributed 5 million masks. Particulate levels hit 20x the maximum recommended by the World Health Organization. Farmers burn crop residue every November and December to clear fields, which makes the pollution worse.

Amnesty reported that Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, has not had a single day of healthy air this year. The government attributes the recent worsening air quality to “the burning of rice stubbles in the Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh.” Critics argue that blaming India allows Pakistan to refuse to acknowledge its role in solving its smog problem. 

Failure to curb pollution is yet another criticism added to the growing list of complaints against South Asia’s politicos, from Modi to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. Protests have been big in South Asia, from 2019’s CAA protests to those in Pakistan against tuition hikes. In 2020, protests will take a broader turn — they will focus on climate change and unemployment.

→ Go deeper: The Violence of Bangladeshi Student Activism

A sign for the PayTM online payment method, operated by One97 Communications Ltd., is displayed next to bags of spices at a wholesale market in Delhi, India, on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. (Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A sign for the PayTM online payment method, operated by One97 Communications Ltd., is displayed next to bags of spices at a wholesale market in Delhi, India, on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. (Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

5. Indian unicorns plateau, but the first Indian company IPOs in the U.S in recent memory

As VCs keep betting in India, they might be overpaying for certain companies who have failed to monetize at the levels that justify lofty valuations. This might lead funding to dry up and tech consolidations to stem losses (Uber is already selling its Uber Eats business in India). At the same time, India might have one of its first IPOs in the United States in several years. Likely candidates are those that already sell to global markets, such as Freshworks. 

Indian startups had their best year of funding in 2019 (~$11.3 billion) vs. prior years: $10.5 billion (2018), $10.4 billion (2017), $4.3 billion (2016), $7.9 billion (2015). Consumer startups raised the majority ($8.2 billion), followed by retail ($2.3 billion), and enterprise ($1.5 billion). Yet, not all bets make sense. Social platform ShareChat has faced fierce competition from TikTok, which has drawn in India’s youth with video. Yet, Twitter led a $100 million Series D into ShareChat at a valuation of $650 million. ShareChat has 60 million monthly active users in 15 regional languages vs. TikTok’s over 120 million. 

OYO is also one of the biggest fundraisers; it raised $1.5 billion in 2019, of which $700 million was from founder Ritesh Agarwal. OYO’s valuation at $10b makes it the second most valuable Indian startup after Paytm, valued at $15b. Yet, OYO is littered with problems, from complaints of late payments and poor management from hotel owners across the world to critiques of its business model.

Snigdha is founder & CEO of The Juggernaut. She grew up a voracious reader and likes having a pen on her at all times.

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