Coronavirus Speeded Pace of Change for India
Prerna Gandhi, Associate Fellow, VIF

Since the lockdown started in India, all along the clock, there has been constant chatter on coronavirus, be it on TV, internet or conversations at home. There is a high degree of pessimism and confusion on how the pandemic would resolve itself and the world would attain normalcy, if there ever was one. But while we stay locked in, there is need to introspect how the world came crashing down in less than three months. Hyper-connectedness is not really the answer to the big question. The invisible virus unleashed a tide of problems, which we chose to ignore or were too overwhelmed to deal with. From a blistering slowdown of auto sector, floundering national air carrier to a rise in banking debts, to poverty or an unsustainable energy mix, these were hitches even before the virus came along.

At least in India, no one can deny population is a massive challenge. Every problem or opportunity gets compounded to scale because of it. Population offers the greatest economic opportunity of having large domestic savings and internal consumption, but generally it is more a problem than an opportunity. Well yes, India has managed to rein in the pandemic, and we can take vicarious pleasure in saying the world’s superpower has suffered tremendously because of the virus, let’s not forget they are 0.3 billion or so, compared to our 1.3 billion people (and area three times our country). If and when the pandemic ends, they will be able to make expedited socio-economic changes and better provide for their citizens. So while it may be politically incorrect to make population control a major factor of government policy, there is need to ramp up awareness that we are heading to becoming the most populated nation on earth and all its associated problems. We need to be mindful of the pressures we put on our bountiful nature and other institutions due to our large population.

Then, the lack of trust between the government and industry is well understood, if not verbally acknowledged. The government accuses industry of being opportunistic with the policies it frames, while the industry criticizes the government as being an orthodox laggard. The sad irony is that both are right. The government, many a times is put in a tight spot of having to choose with bringing in larger market forces or protecting the poor and vulnerable. But if you ask a small business owner on the street, he is equally in a tight spot due to taxes, regulatory compliances and incessant bureaucratic harassments, if not sheer corruption. While, one can look with admiration at the Chinese economic success, the role of industry and businesses go beyond economy. They help us frame our society and define personal values that bring meaning to life. Like our noisy democracy, why isn’t there noisy competition in the market place. Let the creative destructions begin! Why did the virus have to announce its time for India up its innovation and entrepreneurial game!

Also, we cannot deny we missed the bus from IT to AI. Wipro, TCS should have been the Tencents and Baidus of India. Why weren’t we proactive in assessing the arrival of fourth industrial revolution that is underway! One can draw similar parallels in the denial of coronavirus being a serious issue, and the scale of technology penetration in our lives. Though robotic maidservants or autonomous vehicles were always unlikely to become main stream in India, we should have been global pioneers in telemedicine and online learning as they would have helped us address the social gaps in access to essential public services. While the virus glaringly highlighted our dependence on China in medical goods and pharmaceuticals, we have known from a long time the mammoth trade deficit we accrue every year. Also, similar to the Brussels Effect that drives European Union’s dominance, India with its large domestic market should have been a standards maker. The Brussels effect is the process of unilateral regulatory globalisation caused by the European Union de facto (but not necessarily de jure) externalising its laws outside its borders through market mechanisms. In exchange for access to its internal market, the European Union gets to mandate global rules across a range of areas, such as food, chemicals, the environment, competition, and the protection of privacy. Unfortunately, quality still has to become synonymous with Made in India.

The growing wealth inequalities are blatantly visible during the coronavirus lockdown. The plight of large migrant populations moving from cities back to their villages or hometowns has attracted much attention. But the inherent wealth inequalities are not because of the coronavirus or the lockdown. Public infrastructure in India needs a massive upheaval. Two sectors that have gained tremendous attention right now- Health and Education- we have always known they needed more investment. The fact that India’s hospital infrastructure stood at 0.9 beds per 1000 or that our curriculum especially the STEM education is highly inadequate for the new industries, should have been a policy priority since the last millennium.

Further, as Indians, we are very proud of our soil (literally). You can grow something or the other across the length and breadth of the country because of the soil fertility, compared to many other countries where lack of arable land is a very serious issue. But it has been a perennial problem in India of not being able to find a manner to ensure win-win agricultural supply chains. The agriculture sector should been a shining star and not a liability in India’s economic calculus.

However, we seem to have comfortably accommodated many uncomfortable issues. The worst of which is we have become more and more politically inclined, instead of being progress oriented. We have every right to be proud of our democracy that allows all sections of society to be politically represented in decision making if they wish to do so. But there is a time to step back and just study and work. It would be unjust to simply ask for the government to make all things right. The pace of change that would have arrived in a 5-10 years timespan is now at our door due to coronavirus. And this time, we have no option but to address change head on.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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