Company Profiles: South Asia Essay

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A term not always immediately familiar to American ears, south Asia consists of the sub-Himalayan countries in a southern region of Asia: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka—all of which are members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)—as well as the British Indian Ocean Territory. Some discussions and usages include Afghanistan and Tibet; Myanmar, though more properly part of southeast Asia, was part of the British Raj region until 1937 and so is appropriately included in some historical discussions; Iran is included in “southern Asia” by the United Nations. Geographically, the term “Indian subcontinent” may be more familiar, though some parts of some countries of south Asia lie outside the Indian Plate.

SAARC was established in 1985 to strengthen cooperation, social progress, cultural development, and economic growth throughout the region, with a special emphasis on collective self-reliance, no doubt in light of much of the region’s history as part of the British empire. The full members as of 2009 are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka; observer members include Australia, the People’s Republic of China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, South Korea, and the United States. China, Iran, and Myanmar have all expressed interest in full membership; Russia currently seeks observer status. The granting of observer status to Western nations is a recent phenomenon, dating from 2005. SAARC has created the framework for a South Asian Free Trade Area, eliminating all customs duties on trade within the region, and it is hoped to go into full effect in 2016. Despite SAARC, south Asia is the least integrated region in the world. Only 2 percent of the region’s combined gross domestic product (GDP) results from trade within the region, compared for instance to the 20 percent in east Asia.

Sri Lanka

The oldest radio station in Asia is Radio Ceylon, which began broadcasting in 1923, a mere three years after the first European broadcasts; the station is owned by the Sri Lankan government. Briton Edward Harper had popularized amateur radio in Ceylon when he became the chief engineer of the Telegraph Office in 1921, and broadcast music from the Central Telegraphic Office—using a gramophone and a transmitter built from parts scavenged from a captured German submarine.

After radio operations were taken over by the Allies during World War II, the station was handed over to the government and embarked on a serious endeavor of broadcasting. Its senior officers in the postwar era transferred from the BBC, but local on-air talent and off-air professionals were soon developed. Radio Ceylon was instrumental in popularizing Ceylonese music throughout south Asia, as well as broadcasting religious programming—Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian—for its listeners. Advertising in Hindi brought enormous amounts of advertising revenue from India, and many Indian announcers went on to become Bollywood stars. The station was also the nexus of the popular trend, from the 1950s onward, of Indian pop stars recording songs in English. One of the station’s interesting claims to fame: when Edmund Hillary reached the summit of Mount Everest, Radio Ceylon was the first thing he heard on his transistor radio, and he and his team continued to tune in for the news.


The Grameen (“villager”) family of organizations began with Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. A community development bank founded in 1983 (by Vanderbilt-educated Bangladeshi scholar Muhammad Yunus), Grameen Bank offers small loans—branded as grameencredit—to the poor, without requiring collateral. Borrowers recite the “Sixteen Decisions,” vows they are expected to follow, notable enough in their difference from western loan applications to be worth reprinting in full:

  1. We shall follow and advance the four principles of Grameen Bank: Discipline, Unity, Courage and Hard work—in all walks of our lives.
  2. Prosperity we shall bring to our families.
  3. We shall not live in dilapidated houses. We shall repair our houses and work towards constructing new houses at the earliest.
  4. We shall grow vegetables all the year round. We shall eat plenty of them and sell the surplus.
  5. During the plantation seasons, we shall plant as many seedlings as possible.
  6. We shall plan to keep our families small. We shall minimize our expenditures. We shall look after our health.
  7. We shall educate our children and ensure that they can earn to pay for their education.
  8. We shall always keep our children and the environment clean.
  9. We shall build and use pit-latrines.
  10. We shall drink water from tubewells. If it is not available, we shall boil water or use alum.
  11. We shall not take any dowry at our sons’ weddings, neither shall we give any dowry at our daughter’s wedding. We shall keep our centre free from the curse of dowry. We shall not practice child marriage.
  12. We shall not inflict any injustice on anyone, neither shall we allow anyone to do so.
  13. We shall collectively undertake bigger investments for higher incomes.
  14. We shall always be ready to help each other. If anyone is in difficulty, we shall all help him or her.
  15. If we come to know of any breach of discipline in any centre, we shall all go there and help restore discipline.
  16. We shall take part in all social activities collectively.

There is no written contract or binding legal arrangement between borrower and lender, but borrowers may only apply in groups of five or more, and while the loans are granted to the group members individually and no member is obligated to make payments on behalf of any other member, no one who has been a member of a group with a defaulting member is eligible for another loan. In other words, instead of depending on legal reprisals or the seizure of collateral, Grameen Bank depends on peer pressure, and manages a 98 percent payback rate (including late payments).

It has been a remarkably effective system, employed in 43 other countries, by Grameen and other institutions. Interestingly, the vast majority of borrowers are women—over 95 percent. The reasons for this are not at all clear, though some argue that women have the most to gain from the system. The bank has been criticized for charging high interest rates, but points out the risks it takes as well as the lack of any alternative for its borrowers. As this argument is similar to that put forth by issuers of secured and high-risk credit cards, the counter-argument is similar as well: when you are poor and given access to debt, it is very easy to become trapped in it perpetually, and to return to it again and again.

Early in Grameen Bank’s history, it began to diversify by acquiring fishing ponds and irrigation pumps. In 1989, the non-banking holdings became their own organizations: the Grameen Fisheries Foundation and the Grameen Krishi Foundation (irrigation). More ventures followed. In the 21st century, they include the non-profit Grameen Trust that supports small loan programs all over the world; the Grameen Fund, for small business loans; Grameenphone and Grameen Telecom, providing mobile phones and cellular service for the Bangladeshi poor; Grameen Communications, building Cyber Kiosks to provide internet access in rural areas; and Grameen Danone Foods, a joint venture with the French Groupe Danone, selling highly fortified yogurt to provide rural children with nutrients otherwise missing from their diets.

Aarong is a retail chain in Bangladesh, operated by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, one of the largest nongovernmental development organizations in the world. First opened in 1978, Aarong has eight outlets in Bangladesh—five of them in the capital city of Dhaka—as well as a franchise in London. Many of the products sold in the outlets are also exported to Europe and North America, and include cloth and silk products, candles, pottery, and wooden goods, produced by 65,000 workers, most of them women, working in 2000 villages.

A major pharmaceutical company in Bangladesh, Amico Laboratories was founded in 1976. Operating out of the industrial district of Dhaka, Amico develops, manufactures, and markets healthcare products sold all over the country.

Nearly half of the residential housing development business in Bangladesh is controlled by Eastern Housing Limited, a real estate developer founded in 1965 by Jahurul Islam to address the housing shortage in Dhaka. It capitalized on the need for low-cost housing in Bangladesh when the country was still East Pakistan, and still focuses on Dhaka projects more than those outside the city. What began as a focus on lowcost houses and mortgages, though, has expanded to include shopping malls, apartment buildings, and commercial plazas. Long a profitable business, it paid its stockholders a 15 percent divided in 2007.

Incepta Pharmaceuticals is a Dhaka pharmaceutical company that began by manufacturing ranitidine (a stomach acid inhibitor) and quickly expanded into other medicines. Incepta’s name is derived from its slogan, “Innovative Concept Into Practice,” and its stock in trade has been offering a variety of intake methods: not just tablets, capsules, and liquids, but nasal sprays, sustained-release and buffered tablets, quick-dissolving compressed powders, powder inhalers, and flavored liquids.

Sheba Prokashoni is a major publisher based in Dhaka, and focuses principally on Bengali translations of established Western sellers (especially the classics) and novels for young adults and twenty-something’s. Most of its books are published as mass-market paperbacks with stylish covers, and it is well known throughout Bangladesh for the Masud Rana books, a series of international cloak and dagger adventures published steadily since 1966—a total of 389 books, most of them ghostwritten on behalf of series creator Qazi Anwar Hussain. Other popular series include the Western imprint, which translates (or loosely adapts) classic westerns like those of Louis L’amour and was responsible for introducing the genre to Bangladesh; the Teen Goenda series, about a Bangladeshi-American teen detective and his adventures with his two sidekick friends (a white American and a black Muslim American), loosely based on the Three Investigators series (by Robert Arthur Jr.) but often borrowing from The Hardy Boys; a horror imprint that translated William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and published a three-volume novelization of the Gregory Peck film The Omen; and the Kishore Classic series that translates and usually abridges the classic works of Western literature, with a special focus on “boys’ stories” (Mark Twain, Sir Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas, and so on).


Druk Air is the national airline of Bhutan, operating throughout South Asia, with additional flights to Bangkok. Founded in 1981, it remains the only airline with service to Bhutan, and so is an integral part of the nation’s trade and modest tourism industry. Recent hikes in the price of jet fuel have constricted the airline’s flight schedule, but this is considered a temporary condition; in the 2008–13 period, money is being put aside by the Bhutanese government to further develop the main airport and mull over a feasibility study on a prospective international airport in the southern region of the country.


The Tata Group is a Mumbai (India)-based multinational conglomerate founded in 1868 by Jamshetji Tata and run by the Tata family ever since (five generations now). The largest private corporation in India, the Tata Group includes 98 different companies, operating in 85 countries. The companies are divided among seven sectors: engineering (Tata Motors is India’s largest commercial vehicle manufacturer), energy (Tata Power is one of the largest power companies in the world), Chemicals, Services (primarily hotels and financial services), Consumer Products (including Tata Tea Limited, which owns the Tetley brand of tea, and Titan Industries), and Information Systems (Tata Consultancy Services is Asia’s largest software company). Use of the Tata prefix in company branding is common, but not universal, as is use of the stylized T that serves as the group’s logo. Major acquisitions in the 21st century have included Millennium Steel, Eight O’Clock Coffee, the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Boston, Jaguar, Daewoo, and the Corus Group, a $12 billion acquisition of the world’s fifth-largest steel producer.

The second-largest conglomerate in India is Reliance Industries Limited, founded in 1966 as the Reliance Commercial Corporation. Primarily an oil and petroleum products company, Reliance was ranked at 206 on the 2008 Fortune Global 500, and the only Indian company to make Forbes’ 2008 list of the world’s 100 most-respected companies. With three million shares of stock, Reliance is one of the world’s most-invested-in companies, and the company claims that a quarter of Indian investors own shares in Reliance. In recent years, the company has diversified from petroleum and oil exploration, adding textiles, the Vimal clothing brand, and the Reliance Fresh supermarket chain to its portfolio.

Another Indian conglomerate is the massive Aditya Birla Group, with over 100,000 employees in 25 countries across southeast Asia, Europe, and North America; though the company of course has a considerable presence in India, half of its revenues come from its overseas operations Primarily a manufacturer, Aditya Birla has subsidiaries that work with fiber, cement, non-ferrous metals, and chemicals, but also operates Idea Cellular (originally a joint venture of the Tata Group and AT&T) and several retail and financial services companies.

Sahara India Pariwar, founded in 1978, is an Indian conglomerate focusing primarily on finance and services company. The Sahara brand is one of the leaders in India in the life insurance, home loan, and real estate sectors, and the diverse equity funds offered by Sahara Mutual Fund are highly ranked by Reuter-owned fund tracker Lipper. Its media subsidiaries control the Filmy movie channel, Samay news channel, 36 city news channels, and Sahara One, one of the country’s most popular general entertainment channels, with programming rebroadcast around the world.

India’s largest telecommunications company is Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, with a 24 percent market share as of 2008. Headquartered in New Delhi, it is India’s oldest phone company, founded in the 19th century, and has pioneered both rural telephony and widespread upgrades of broadband connectivity.

Genpact is one of India’s leading business process outsourcing (BPO) companies, employing 34,000 people with services available every hour of the day, every day of the year. Its operations are spread out around the world, including its American subsidiary with mortgage services in Irvine, California, and Salt Lake City, and finance services in Wilkes Barre, Nashville, and Parsippany, New Jersey.

Evalueserve, founded at the end of 2000, is an Indian Knowledge Process Outsourcing (KPO) firm, operating out of centers in India, China, Chile, and Romania, with about 2500 employees combined. More than 2100 of those employees work in the New Delhi call center, with a hundred or so in each of the other locations. Evalueserve focuses mainly on investment, market, and business research, with services also available in legal research and data analysis.

Other Companies

Spice Nepal Private Limited is the first company to offer GSM mobile phone services in Nepal, having broken the telephony monopoly of Nepal Telecom. Originally operating only in the capital at the time of its 2004 establishment, SNPL has expanded to every zone of the country and has introduced the full range of standard cellular service features, many of them previously unavailable in the country.

Southern Networks is a Pakistani television network, begun in 1995 as a small system of pay cable channels and pay-per-view services and expanding with the addition of digital broadcasts. It presently offers 50 digital channels and a dozen over-the-air analogue channels, in Pakistani, Hindu, and English.

Micro Cars is a Sri Lankan car company founded in 1995, though thanks to legal issues, the business didn’t get healthily underway until 2003, with the introduction of the Micro Privilege, a small car with a 1000cc 4-cylinder engine. The Privilege was the first locally made car in Sri Lanka, and was designed to be more affordable and practical than foreign cars. Vans and hatchbacks have followed, all of them made of flexible composite materials. Currently the company is engaged in producing its first SUVs, in a collaboration with Korean automobile manufacturer SsangYong.


  1. Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal, Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy (Taylor and Francis, 2007);
  2. Ben Crow, Markets, Class, and Social Change: Trading Networks and Poverty in Rural South Asia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001);
  3. Meghnad Desai, Development and Nationhood: Essays in the Political Economy of South Asia (Oxford University Press, 2006);
  4. Barbara Harriss-White, India Working: Essays on Society and Economy (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

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