India: The way we were


What was India like in 1991, the year it began to open up its economy?

This was the question I had to answer recently while making a presentation at the launch of the book, ‘The Making of Star India’ by @Vanita Kohli-Khandekar. I was trying to create a picture of India in 1991 when Star TV entered India. And the answer I found was fascinating: it is as if the India of now and the India of then are two different countries.

There were no coffee shops, no large book shops, no McDonald’s or Domino’s or even Coke or Pepsi – services and brands that we take for granted.

Let me paint a picture with nine sets of facts – six about the economy and markets and three about the media business and you will be amazed at just how far we have come.

  • Population: The population of India has grown by about 50 per cent since 1991 – from 89 crore to 136 crore. At that time the typical Indian could expect to live to about 60 years; since then longevity has grown significantly and is close to 70 years. A big change since those days is that fertility has fallen and in 13 states the birth rate dropped so sharply that if it weren’t for migration, the population would have begun declining.
  • Per capita income: In 1991, consumer markets for most product categories were confined to big cities. Today, they have moved to smaller towns and in many categories a large chunk of sales come from rural India. That’s because the per capita income at purchasing power parity (PPP) has grown six-fold, from $1,140 in 1991 to a much more respectable $7,060 in 2019.
  • India’s GDP: Population has grown and so has per capita income and naturally then, so too has the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The nominal GDP – that is, in real dollars, not PPP – has galloped from merely $266 billion in 1991 to $2.6 trillion in 2019. It is up ten fold, making it one of the world’s largest economies.
  • Car market: The car market has been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late but still, the explosion in sales since 1991 has been astounding. In 1991, Indians bought a total of 2 lakh four-wheelers and the most luxurious car was the Maruti Esteem 1000! Now, all the major car companies are in India and together they sold a total of 3.2 million cars last year – that is 16 times the number from 1991.
  • Forex reserves: In 1991, the oil spike following the Gulf war had wrecked the country’s already fragile economy and India had just $500 million left in foreign exchange reserves. Because it didn’t have the dollars to even import oil, it pledged 47 tonnes to the Banks of England and Japan to raise $400 million. This created a political uproar but as the economy opened up, the country soon recovered and began to accumulate more than enough in foreign exchange. Today, India’s reserves are around $430 billion – which means, 860 times what they were in 1991. Hard to even the magnitude, isn’t it?!
  • TV households: India of 1991 was nearly media dark. Newspaper circulation was low and TV and radio were controlled by the government via Doordarshan and All India Radio. There were no FM radio stations or cinema multiplexes. Only 35 million households had TV sets. Today the number is up six-fold to 197 million homes.
  • Largest media company: Within media, print was the only real business in a small, closed economy. The biggest company at the time was Bennett Coleman, publisher of The Times of India and other dailies. Its top line in 1991 was about Rs 150 crore. Today, there are three media companies/groups whose turnover is over Rs 10,000 crore: Bennett Coleman, Star India and Zee’s media business. In other words, the largest media company is 67X what it was in 1991.
  • Satellite channels: CNN had entered India in 1991, via five-star hotels, riding on the back of its coverage of the Gulf war. It was India’s first taste of live television. Later that year, a bouquet of four Star channels became available. In contrast, there are at least 900 satellite channels in every conceivable language, catering to every possible taste.

In conclusion, India has a long way to go on many parameters. But when we feel restless and unhappy about the state of the nation, it is good to remember how far we have come. And Independence Day is the perfect time to do that.

About the author

Sreekant Khandekar

A serial media entrepreneur, I started professional life as a news journalist. Am a voracious reader with a deep interest in societal change.
I was the founding editor of A&M, India’s first national publication for advertising, marketing and media. It spawned coverage of this space in all publications. Also co-founded afaqs!, The Mobile Indian and Kulzy.

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