Gul Kripalani. Source: Alexandra Katz
It is not new for Gul Kripalani, chairman of Mumbai-based Pijikay Group, one of India’s oldest export houses for frozen seafood in India, to be in the news. In his decades-old career as an entrepreneur, Kripalani has served as president of Indian Merchants' Chamber (IMC), president and the national vice president of Seafood Exporters’ Association of India and the national president of the Indo-Canadian Business Chamber. He is currently the president of the Federation of Indo-Israel Chambers of Commerce as well as Honorary Consul General for Iceland.
However, in December last year Kripalani shot into prominence for quite a different reason. He, along with a group of Indian businesspersons, met the leader of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, on the sidelines of the one-day summit of Russian President Vladimir Putin with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December in New Delhi.
The appearance of Aksyonov in Delhi and his talks with the business community were hyped by the Indian and foreign media, and eventually turned out to be an irritant for the US in the light of President Barack Obama’s visit to India. Two months after this incident, Kriplani met Russia&India Report correspondent in his office in South Mumbai to discuss the controversyand the ground realities of doing business with Russia.
Looking back, what was your actual involvement in the meeting with the Crimean leader in Delhi?
I was told that he is coming just a few days in advance; I did not know him before. We were about 12-15 people, including the Crimean delegation and Russian Consul General. We had lunch together. We decided that we will look at Crimea as a possible market for our products… but then the media controversy took over the business between India and Crimea completely. Not wanting to be a part of any controversy, I decided that someone else should lead this initiative. So there is someone else who is leading it right now; his name will be announced officially next month.
Does Pijikay Group deal with Russia in seafood or any other products? How has been your personal experience of doing business with Russia, especially in the current economic realities?
Recent problems with the ruble had an effect on Russia’s business with all countries, including with India. I feel bad about it because I went for the first time to Russia in August last year with very big hopes. I expect for the future that Russia will be a big market for India’s seafood and meat. Earlier, India was trading with Russia in these items but not directly.
How did the sanctions imposed on imports from Western countries change the scenario for India?
Since the sanctions were imposed, the door of opportunities opened for India. Seafood was being exported to Russia even before, but out of 400 exporters only 60-70 got the Russian approval for supply of frozen seafood as Russia has very specific hygienic conditions.
What are the volumes we are talking about?
Russia is buying, in my estimate, approximately 10,000 tonnes of seafood per year. I believe Indian seafood now has a small share of not more than 2-3 per cent in Russia, but after the sanctions, it must have gone up.
You have mentioned meat exports as well. Do you deal in meat too? What are the chances of India becominga large exporter for buffalo meat to Russia considering that Russians still prefer beef meat to buffalo meat?
I personally handle meat in my company. I think Russia has the potential of buying at least 200 000 tonnes per year from India in some time. By now, the Russian authorities have approved just four Indian factories. However, slowly they will approve more companies that are adhering to the Russian norms.
In general, how do you see the opportunities for India in Russia, and in Crimea, which is now a part of Russia?
I see many opportunities in Russia, but I do not really know about Crimea yet. The main challenge in the case of Crimea is the price, the ability of Crimean people to pay that price. The ruble crisis hit hard and they have not yet overcome it. It has nothing to do with Mr. Putin or Mr.Aksenov, it is just a question whether poor men in Crimea will be able to pay or not.
India has developed good political and business relations with the US as well as other Western countries. Do you think Indian businessmen would be wary of going Crimea fearing the sanctions?
I feel the businesses in India does not really know Crimea well enough. Once it becomes a little more exposed, then the companies would have to take a call. I believe Crimea may be able to get assistance from India, not because it was a part of Ukraine, and not it’s now a part of Russia, but because it has 2. 5 million people who need to be fed, who need to be clothed, who need to have coffee, tea, rice.
So is Crimea a big market of opportunities?
Not a big market, but it is a market. For that matter, you have Ukraine with 45 million people that could be a better market. If you do not supply to Crimea, you can supply to Ukraine. Every company has to take its own decision.
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