India Insight

Segway’s India business pegs hope on tech-savvy Modi

By Shashank Chouhan and Ankush Arora

People ride self-balancing Segway transportation devices past the Indian home ministry in New Delhi January 5, 2014. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee/Files

Among the companies hoping for tax credits from the business-friendly Bharatiya Janata Party since its election victory in May is the Indian distributor of the Segway Personal Transporter. The company hopes that the government will recognise the battery-run two-wheeler as a green vehicle, a move that could spur sales of the expensive device in a country where many people today cannot afford it.

The U.S.-based Segway Inc. was founded by Dean Kamen based on a vision to develop “high-efficient, zero emission transportation solutions” that are manoeuvrable and can be operated on sidewalks and pathways.

In 2002, Segway, adapted from the word segue that means “to transition smoothly from one state to another”, got the right to operate in over 30 states in the United States. By 2007, the New Hampshire-headquartered company had a worldwide presence in 60 countries, according to a report. It made its India debut in 2010.

Four years later, the Segway has a presence in Delhi, Mumbai and parts of the state of Maharashtra and southern India, including Bangalore. The company is building the vehicle in the city of Gurgaon just outside Delhi, and wants to sell it to airports, hotels, the police and upscale neighbourhoods, according to a top executive of the Bird Group, Segway’s Indian distributor.

However, the product’s steep price (a single unit costs between 400,000 to 500,000 rupees or around $8,000. For that price you can buy a sedan in India) in a price-sensitive market like India coupled with high customs and a lack of infrastructure weighs on the vehicle’s sales potential. The result – it has been confined to commercial and institutional use or at farmhouses or by tech-savvy rich people.

Lavasa: City of shared sensibilities?

It was with a heavy dose of cynicism I went to see Lavasa, one of India’s few attempts at building a brand new city, which has ambitions of being an IT and learning hub, as well as a tourist destination.

For a while, media outlets gushed with praise that bore a suspicious resemblance to Lavasa’s own marketing material. Then came stories which questioned Lavasa’s land acquisition and ecological proclamations. So when I drove through the hills outside of Mumbai to check out the place myself, as the quoted travel time of three hours turned to five, I was girded for disappointment.

Yet, I confess, I liked Lavasa.

Not because its lake was beautiful (it was an uninviting shade of orangey-brown), or its hotels were charming (common corporate fare) or because its views were breathtaking (they were nice, but only one trail exists from which to see them) but I liked Lavasa because of its work-in-progress ambition to get all that right and offer affluent, but not filthy rich, India something very fine: modern amenities and working infrastructure, brightly-coloured buildings of style and flare, attempts at being eco-friendly and above all, the one thing that is missing in too many dog-eat-dog/developer-eat-developer urban areas of India — planning.