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How COVID and China disputes impact Indian access control market

How COVID and China disputes impact Indian access control market
Indian access control solution providers are seeing a demand for contactless solutions along with growing anti-China sentiments.
As the global access control industry scrambles to find contactless solutions for a COVID-struck world, Indian solution providers have been waging a two-pronged battle. On the one hand, they need to provide cost-efficient contactless solutions to the customers. On the other, they also need to cope with a growing anti-China sentiment.

The COVID battle

Rakesh Sachdev
MD, Acetech Technologies
Contactless technology was an inevitable demand that COVID-19 brought with it. Realizing this at an early stage of the pandemic, Rakesh Sachdev, MD of the Mumbai-based systems integration company Acetech Technologies, prepared a document titled “Contactless Technologies in Workplaces in the COVID Era” for his customers.

“It was not just about solutions like facial recognition for access control,” Sachdev said. “Facial recognition could grant access or unlock a door without physical contact, but in many instances, you would still need to open a door by touching its handle. To deal with this, we offered motorized swing door and sliding door operators. At exits, we recommended touch-free buttons that could open the doors.”

The customers, on their part, are keen on these solutions, but because the Indian government had implemented a country-wide lockdown for almost two months from March, sales have been less. Even though the country-wide lockdown was lifted in May, regional lockdowns and restrictions continue, and many customers are still reluctant to decide to invest.

But Roshan Bohra, Owner of the access control solutions provider ESSL, explained that he doesn’t see this demand sustaining in the long term. Facial recognition systems are receiving attention at the moment, but they are costly, their capacity is lower than fingerprint-based systems, and chances of error are more.
Roshan Bohra
Owner, Essl

“In the long run, I don’t see face recognition solutions overtaking the fingerprint systems,” Bohra said. “Almost all our sales after the outbreak of COVID-19 have been facial recognition systems. But I expect this demand to flatten in the longer term, mainly because India is a cost-sensitive economy.”

However, others are more optimistic. Sandeep Patil, Founder of the systems integration company Securizen, cited an example of a company that had, a long time ago, installed a touch-based palm scanner for access control in one of the Indian states. A few years back, when a plague broke out in that region, people became reluctant to place their palms on a surface that was touched by several others. Eventually, the company was forced to get rid of these solutions. COVID-19 is just a repetition of this scenario on a larger scale.

“There is a demand now for facial recognition solutions, but the prices are still high,” Patil explained. “There is a possibility that the small and medium-range customers may go back to using fingerprint sensors after we get a cure or vaccine for COVID-19. They can use fingerprint sensors even now if they disinfect after each use, although this could be a tedious task in the longer term.”

Even for high-end customers, like a pharmaceutical company that works with Patil, upgrading from their existing fingerprint scanners is a significant capital investment decision because they have hundreds of readers across their premises. So, the market may take a final decision only after observing the developments of a vaccine or cure for COVID-19.

Impact of Indo-China border dispute

Sandeep Patil
When the market contemplated on contactless solutions, an unprecedented clash erupted between the Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Himalayan border region, resulting in the death of several Indian soldiers. This prompted a rise in anti-China sentiments and calls to boycott Chinese products.

“Recently, we had a call from a leading hospitality company for a facial recognition access control solution, and I sent a proposal suggesting a Chinese brand,” Patil narrated his experience without naming the companies involved. “A few days later, when I contacted them again, they said that during the lockdown, they tried to procure disinfecting machines and PPE kits. They got them from some Chinese vendors but felt that they should buy from Indian manufacturers, which they managed to do with difficulty. Finally, they told me that I should also opt for Indian products.”
Patil said that he would definitely be happy to promote Indian manufacturers if there were enough options available. But there are no made-in-India products in many sectors, and China is the only cost-efficient option. Sachdev narrated a similar experience.

“We recently received an inquiry for a facial recognition-based access control solution, integrated with thermal screening and mask detection, where they categorically said not to go for Chinese products,” Sachdev said. But he pointed out that such anti-China sentiments among consumers began even before the border issue when COVID-19 outbreak began.

“There was this thought that COVID-19 was a problem that started in China, and now we are forced to buy Chinese solutions for it,” Sachdev said. “It’s like an old Charlie Chaplin movie, in which Chaplin sends a kid to break a store window, before innocently walking over and offering to repair it!”

What’s the conclusion?

Although there are customers interested in contactless access control technology, the Indian market appears to have taken a wait-and-watch strategy for now. However, the spread of the virus in the next few months would play a critical role in the decision-making process. By the end of this year or early next, we would get a clearer picture.

Boycotting Chinese products is clearly not practical in the current Indian context. Manufacturers like Bohra wish and expect to make their products entirely in India in a few years, but there is much to be done before the country reaches that stage. “Make in India” is not as easy as it sounds.   

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