Budget -21, Reform push and Time to Market!

There have been budgets in the past which have sort of quickly moved away from the headlines. And there have been budgets which remained in the headlines but for all wrong reasons. This year’s budget, incidentally the 8th one from the Modi Sarkar presented by Nirmala Sitharaman has managed to hog the limelight for all the “right” reasons. The pun here is well intended.

Talking of the reaction to this government’s previous budgets, it’s always been muted and for obvious reasons. Ever since Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister way back in 2014 that too with a clear majority, the expectation has been that he will bite the bullet on many of the much needed, long pending reforms. Honestly, the previous budgets of the Modi Sarkar were mostly incremental budgets with some increased allocations here, some improved programs there and so on. “What’s the Big Idea”? ‘Where are the Big bang reforms?” were some questions hurled by the commentariat post every budget. It has been my observation that under Modi, the budgets have just become an annual statement of allocations and outlays while Big Ideas whether it was the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or the Ujjwala Yojana et al were launched outside of the budget. But in this year’s budget, there has been a welcome change to announcing some “Big Ideas”.

The positive vibes around this year’s budget can be attributed to the announcement of few big ideas which have been reformist in nature, while keeping the budget free of any “bad news”. One is the announcement of the setting up of an Asset Reconstruction Company (ARC) which is a euphemism for a “Bad Bank”. Second, is the statement of intent on “privatisation” of two Public Sector Undertaking Banks and one General Insurance company. So far, governments have been taking umbrage under the term – Disinvestment without putting out the word “Privatisation” so openly.

Not just the budget, but the announcement has been followed up by speeches in the parliament and other forums by those who matter in the government, on the seriousness of the intent. In fact, as per news reports, Niti Aayog has recommended to cut the number of state owned Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) to just 24 from over 300 that exist today. If this programme takes off, it will make Modi a reformist of “Thatcherian” proportions. If you recall, Margaret Thatcher way back in 1979, on assuming power systematically embarked on a reform program to revive the British economy. She deregulated markets, cut tax rates, removed exchange controls and consigned militant trade unions to oblivion. But, it is the privatisation of State owned corporations like British Steel, British Petroleum, British Telecom and British Airways that stays as her enduring legacy till today. So, what Thatcher achieved in the early 80’s in the United Kingdom is what Modi is embarking to do in India after forty years. That brings to the next point of this post which is the important piece of “Time to Market”.

In business, Time to Market is nothing but the time taken by a company to launch a product or a service from the date of firming up on an idea.  For companies, this is an important issue in new product introductions.  In businesses that are highly competitive or for that matter any business, you cannot afford to have a long Time to Market.  That would run the risk of your competitor getting ahead or consumer preferences changing that makes the idea less relevant or even redundant.  I believe that even in the matter of reforms for a government, a short Time to Market is critical. And as a country, our track record on that front is unenviable so far.

In the context of reform push, I believe there are three stages namely – Idea, Intent and Implementation. First, the idea is just floated in a budget speech or on important occasion/forum. Then the Intent is demonstrated when the idea is given a proper shape, laws are formulated if there is a need and resources are allocated.  Implementation is when finally the reform becomes a reality and is rolled out. So, in India if you see the history of Time to Market on important reforms, it doesn’t pose a pretty picture.

For example, take the case of a reform like Aadhaar. The idea and need for a unique citizens identity card was floated way back in 2001 by an Empanelled Group Of Ministers (EGOM) chaired by the then Home Minister L.K. Advani during the Vajpayee led NDA regime. It was only in 2009, when the intent was demonstrated by the UPA government led by Manmohan Singh with the announcement in the budget and then following it up with the set up if UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) under the leadership of Nandan Nilekani. And finally, the first Aadhaar card was issued to a citizen in September 2010. So, from the idea to the launch it took a good 9 years. In the case of GST, from the time of the floating of the idea way back in 2000 to showing the intent in the budget in year 2005 to finally launching GST in India in 2017, it took seventeen years.

In the case of the policy of allowing 100% Foreign Direct Investment in retail however, from the stage of the Idea to Intent to Implementation, the landscape of retail has changed. India doesn’t still allow 100% FDI in multi brand retail. This was seen as an important reform in attracting FDI and employment generation a decade ago. But now with the advent of E-Commerce where 100% FDI is allowed in the marketplace model, 100% FDI in Multi-brand retail is no longer seen as a constraint. In other developing countries like Thailand foreign direct investment in retail gave a huge boost to the economy. But India missed that boom because of the dogma around FDI in multi brand retail which stretched the Time to Market on that reform.

Ergo my point is, if the reforms which have been announced in this budget have to make an impact, short Time to Market is critical. Having floated the Idea of a Bad Bank, it is important to follow up quickly with the formation of the ARC and eventually roll it out within this year itself so that the PSU banks can be freed of the stressed loans and they can get back to lending with more ease. Similarly, in the case of privatisation of PSU Banks, the idea has been floating for a while now. But this is the first time, the government has expressed its formal intent via the budget speech. The road to privatisation is not going to be easy at all with trade unions already gearing to pick up the gauntlet with the government. I though believe just as the mass VRS issue in PSUs like MTNL and BSNL etc. went through in spite of stiff resistance from trade unions, this time, the government may be able to pull it off with a few hiccups. Or so I hope.  Also, while the stock markets are on a high this year, the government can manage to get better valuations.

In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Modi repeatedly talked of “Less Government, More Governance” and “Government has no business to be in business” – thoughts which signalled a clear Rightward tilt on the economic philosophy front. However, till this budget speech, we didn’t see much of action towards withdrawing the government from running many businesses. This budget from that sense is critical in signalling the government’s intent towards moving away from running inconsequential businesses, which is a good sign. And, if the intent is translated into action in a reasonably short Time to Market, then it will be Narendra Modi’s lasting legacy in changing the economic course of this country.

Post Script: If Aandolanjivis are those who make a living out of protests, what about taxing them? And what would be the Time to Market for this idea? 😁

Thank God It’s a New Year!

In all these years so far in my life, never have I seen such wholesome relief in people on the passing by of a year. Year 2020 has been one of a kind. Not that there have been bad years before. But in the past, a year would have been labelled annus horribilis probably due to a natural calamity, a sad event/s, an economic bad spell and so on. Also, it so happens that a year turns out to be worse for some regions/countries in the world and better for others. But 2020 turned out to be a disaster for almost most part of the year due to the Corona Virus which did not spare any part of the world. The same time last year, as people ushered in another New Year with the usual sense of happiness and glee, none saw it coming. By April, the world was scrambling to lock itself down to save itself from the raging pandemic. Even as I write this, the pandemic is not behind us fully.

Any New Year usually brings in a ray of hope. A hope for better things to come.  2021 I guess, has been mankind’s most anticipated milestone. And people have not just been looking forward to a ray of hope but a landscape of hope. One just wanted to leave behind the horrors of living through a pandemic year and lead a normal life.  By the end of 2020 if you had asked me to name the phrase I hated the most, it was ‘New Normal’.  It still is.

Coming to India specifically, the year 2020 indeed turned out to be bad. Yet, I would reckon that we as a country came out of it relatively unscathed.  Of course the economy took a humungous hit. Of course lives were lost. Of course the common man had to go through hardships. Of course senior citizens had a tough time coping up. Of course people lost jobs. Of course migrant labour had to migrate without a hope. Of course earnings of people took a beating. Yet, if one looks at the situation now, we should consider ourselves fortunate to have bent the curve decisively, got away with fewer deaths per million compared to many other countries and be in a position where life seems to be getting back to the “Old Normal”!

Leaving aside data and statistics, there are other reasons that made me say that as a country we came out relatively unscathed.  First our size. We are a population of 1.3 billion. Second, most of the cities and towns in our country have a very high population density. Also, much of the population does not have the luxury of space. Third, our general civic standards though improving by the day, still has a long way to go.  Fourth, our propensity to not follow rules and not be disciplined overpowers our propensity to follow rules and be disciplined. Fifth, our overarching credo of ‘Chalta hai’ has ingrained in us an attitude to take things lightly without getting overly concerned. And finally, the lack of adequate medical infrastructure in the country. All this doesn’t at all augur well for a country like ours to handle a pandemic like Covid. Add to this, the complexities of being a democracy and a federal democracy in that where, a central writ cannot run across the country! Throw in the fact that this is the first time that a Covid like pandemic of this scale has stuck India because of which we don’t have established SOPs or tribal knowledge to handle the situation. All these are recipes for nothing else but social tension and unmitigated economic disaster.

The reality as it panned out has not been so bad.  There has been no visible social tension in the country. The only tension we see these days is “Social media tension” between those who support Prime Minister Narendra Modi and those who oppose him. In fact, the not so privileged have shown tremendous resilience in dealing with the crisis. During the last few months, I have been in constant touch with a cross section of common people who touch our lives and who would have been the most affected due to the extended lockdowns. They have all taken the unfortunate fallout of the pandemic in their stride and have got back to their normal lives now. None of them blamed the government for what it did or what it didn’t do. They all politely refused any offer of support and claimed that they were managing fine. This picture is totally opposite to what one gets to read in columns of the commentariat where the Modi Government’s lock down is being pilloried for what it would have inflicted on the poor.

Further, as an economy we seem to be bouncing back quicker and better than expected. To quote economist and famed columnist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar from one of his recent columns, he says, “First, India has proved far more resilient than expected after the terrible first quarter of Covid. Second, India has been resilient despite having among the smallest fiscal stimuli among major nations.” Again, we have managed without actually doling out cash support which was what was touted as the silver bullet for stimulating the economy by almost all the top economists except those who were advising the Government.  Looking back, unlike a country like US where people like to spend, Indians are conservative in nature and would like to save for the rainy day. So, in a pandemic situation, I feel that people would not have spent even if money was transferred to their accounts. Instead, it would have only been kept aside for savings, which in the final run would have been detrimental to the cause of stimulating the economy. In that sense, the approach of the Government in providing free food grains to the needy or loan support for small businesses etc. seems wiser steps for a country like India.

The New Year has been rung in India with the best possible news of the approval of the vaccine for Covid.  Based on the last few months trend, it is clear that the manufacturing and allied industries are on a re-bound. With the dip in numbers and the availability of vaccine, hopefully, the services sector like Travel, Hospitality, Tourism, Food & Dining and related verticals will also see a quick recovery after which, we can say that we are reaching a “Normal” state.

As we segue into a New Year, my wish has become more grounded and guarded. As one exults “Thank God It’s a New Year”, here’s wishing one and all a New Year 2021 which will be just Normal and that will turn out to be an Annus Mirabilis!

The Mandi Vs Modi battle!

As a country, I believe that we are cursed to contend with one distraction after another, which keep our governments busy. If it was the Anti-CAA protests which were grabbing the headlines during winter last year, it is the farmers’ protests against the Modi Sarkar’s farm bills this winter. And in between, we have the Covid and its numbers to be pre-occupied with, still.

In the last few weeks, ever since the farmer’s agitation picked up steam, there have been many op-ed pieces from erudite authors which have by and large spoken in favour of the farm bills. And they have said that this is the 1991 moment for Indian agriculture. And yet, the farmers associations have stood their ground against these reforms. Irony dies when we see articles with pictures now of farmer protests in the past demanding the same reforms!

The opposition has joined ranks with the protestors in trying to push back the Modi government on the farm bills. And it has been pointed to us that many of the opposition parties including the Congress, which is now siding with the farmers in opposing the farm bills, have been votaries of the same proposals in the past. It is clear now that since the opposition cannot take on the government on the floor of the house, its strategy is to take on the government on the streets.

While there have been many pieces exposing the double speak of the parties, I would recommend all to read just this one authored by Gautam Chikermane for the ORF – “An intellectual biography of India’s new farm laws”. Read here:

This piece chronicles the various studies and reports tabled by expert committees under different governments’ right from the year 2000 and invariably the recommendations are similar to the very reforms the present farm bills have brought in. It thereby exposes the intellectual hypocrisy of not just the politicians, which to a large extent we have learnt to live with, but of the commentariat which is not coming out and expressing its views in favour of the farm bills strongly, though it was in favour of the same before.

As you can see in the said article, there has been a rare consensus among economists and domain experts on the issue of reforming the APMC Act and Essential Commodities Act. Therefore, it is a pity that we are seeing such virulent, stubborn opposition to the reforms from one section of the farmers’ universe.

In the past five years, I have consistently observed that the commentariat in India keeps shifting goal posts as per its whims and fancies.  In the beginning of the 1st term of Modi, the narrative was “Where are the big bang reforms?” When the Modi government started bringing in reforms it became, “Where is the consensus in bringing these reforms? Where is the consultation?” When reforms are brought in after consultation and building a consensus as in the case of GST, the narrative is, “Where is the execution?” So, clearly we are seeing a pattern of opposition for the heck of it irrespective of the merits of the case.

In the case of farm bills too, there are those who have been saying that there has been no consultation. It is clear as broad day light in the article that, there have been consultations with stake holders for 20 years now! I believe that the government must reach out to many of these experts who were in favour of these bills during UPA regime and enlist them to express their support for the reforms they were batting for in the past. This could include people like Montek Singh Ahluwalia, M.S. Swaminathan and the likes. Here, it could take a leaf out of UPA-1 rule when Sanjaya Baru, the then Press advisor to Manmohan Singh, reached out to Brijesh Mishra enlisting his support for the nuclear deal when BJP was opposing it tooth and nail. The Civil Nuclear deal discussions with the US started when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister during the NDA rule. So, having an Ex-National Security Advisor to talk in favour of the nuclear deal when BJP was opposing the same, sort of punctured the opposition narrative.

Again coming back to the point of introducing the reforms after extensive consultations across the board, our experience has not been very good. During UPA, the land acquisition bill was brought in after extensive consultations and after building a broad consensus. The result is there for all to see. The bill never took off. It is a classic case of the operation being called successful while the patient was dead. The Modi government in the very 1st year wanted to fix this and brought in amendments which never went through. Finally, in the absence of a consensus, the amendments were not made and the bill continues to languish without serving the purpose of its existence.

Much of the infrastructure projects announced by the Modi Government are behind schedule or languishing in spite of having a very enterprising and well-meaning Nitin Gadkari as the minister at the helm. The main reason has been the delay in land acquisition essentially because of the rigorous clauses built in the bill that was brought in with a broad consensus.  So, any bill just because it is brought in with a lot of consultations and a broad consensus need not be the ideal bill.

In the parliament, the idea of consultations and building consensus effectively means putting the draft of the bills or amendments through select committees or standing committees. To borrow the words of HDFC Chairman, Deepak Parekh, “In India, when the government cannot commit, it committees!” Which effectively means extended discussions and delays. At the peak of UPA rule, when most of India wanted a decisive government with a majority on its own, it was precisely for these reasons. So, when Modi Sarkar which has now won a decisive mandate on its own twice over, takes the route of avoiding these long winded committees and brings in changes in laws on issues like the farm bills where discussions have been going on for 20 years now, we shouldn’t complain.

Building a consensus is often overrated and I concur with the latest statement by Niti Aayog Chairman Amitabh Kant that in India, we suffer from “too much” democracy. I sincerely hope that the government sticks to the main proposals and not roll back on the essence of the farm bills. In the meantime, it should use its communication firepower led by more amenable ministers like Gadkari to get the message across to the farmers’ associations and get them to pull back.  The Mandi Vs Modi battle is clearly a distraction for us at this time when the government must be focussed on handling the economic mandi (slump) on a war footing to bring the growth back on track.

Post script: The title for this post is courtesy my good friend Gopal Kutty Sasthri who popped this up during one of our chats on the topic and so due thanks to him.

End of a Nightmare!

The last few days, almost whole of the world was consumed by what was happening in America with respect to the presidential elections. In my memory, no other US presidential election was followed so much with anticipation and anxiety. Partly it could be due to the proliferation of the media and of course the monster called Social media. Also it could be due to the long drawn electoral process this time around which meant that people had to remain connected with this topic for a longer time than usual. All these notwithstanding, I doubt if a character called Donald Trump was not in the frame, the US elections would be followed with so much interest.

In 2016, when Trump won the elections and became the President, there was a sense of shock outside of America. May be even within the US. During conversations following that election, I remember many of my American friends being embarrassed about the fact a person like Trump has been elected by their country. These could all be liberals who couldn’t fathom how Trump with his idiosyncrasies could pull off a win. Though there were many reasons attributed to his win that time, it was important to respect the democratic will of the voters which elected a person like Trump.  It was believed that once in power, Trump will behave more responsibly and be an inclusive President. That was not to be.

In the recent past, world over we have seen many disruptions. But, I would say that the mother of disruptions has been the Trump Presidency. Trump put foreign relations completely on transactional mode with no considerations of the past. He displayed a fair amount of disdain and contempt for multi-lateral International bodies like the UN, WHO, WTO etc. He pulled out of agreements which America had committed to in the past. And much more all in the name of protecting America’s national interests. But to be fair to Trump, we can say that he was only following his agenda basis which he secured the mandate. And he was ticking off his poll promises one by one.

It is widely believed that Trump’s track record on the economy front has not been too bad till Covid struck. I am in no position to comment on this. But data on the GDP, unemployment, jobs etc. show that till the pandemic hit US, Trump era has been good for the United States from an economic perspective.

The real issue though, was his own personal conduct as the President of United States of America. One lost count of the inner presidential staff he fired during his term, at times through social media. Most of the days, the world woke up to his tweets that were disruptive in nature. He would in a seemingly innocuous style blurt out comments that are not expected out of any Head of a State. Trump would callously speak about personal conversations he had with other leaders taking everyone by surprise. For example, one day he will be in full praise of “his dear friend Modi” and the next day in a presser he would decry the high custom duties India levies on Harley Davidson motor bikes. Similarly, he will volunteer to mediate between India and Pakistan when the established position has been not to intervene. Trump became notoriously famous for this kind of “hit and run” diplomacy that would create chaos only for his team to clean up the mess through clarifications later on.

Trump’s unpredictability, his disdain for established conventions and a total lack of grace has been in full exhibition even in the last few days after the polling has been over. To the rest of the world, it comes as a complete shocker when a Head of a State calls his own country’s electoral process a fraud. Even after the election has been called in favour of his opponent, Trump continues to claim that he has won.

There are many in India particularly those belonging to the liberal intelligentsia clan who claim that the Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi is similar to Trump in terms of personality. This comparison is nothing but prejudiced and completely preposterous. Apart from their contempt for liberals, I don’t think there is anything in common between Trump and Modi in terms of their personalities. As a Prime Minister, Modi’s social media communication has been extremely measured and calibrated. He seldom interacts with the press and even then, there has been no instances of embarrassing comments about leaders of other countries. Even on the diplomatic front, though Modi has challenged the status quo in many fronts, he has never tried to show disgrace in his conduct.

Even as the results of Trump’s imminent defeat was trickling in, there has been few articles by opinion leaders which said that Trump may be out but Trump’ism will continue to stay. In the sense, though Trump has been unseated, in terms of popular vote there is only a thin wedge that separates Trump and Biden. So, there is a large American population which believed in the way Trump ruled the country in the last four years. And that it would be difficult for any new incumbent to ignore the sentiments of this large base and completely move away from Trump’ism. Well, if this means being sensitive to the voice of even those who voted for Trump and taking steps accordingly it is fine.

I have no great insights into Joe Biden’s calibre or his past track record in governance. However, I am sure that whatever we have seen of Biden so far, he can never be an embarrassment to even those who did not vote for him, unlike Trump.  It was important that a sense of grace and order be brought back to the seat of the President of the United States and I am glad that it happened with the defeat of Trump. I am not sure if Biden’s term is a beginning of a dream for the world but the nightmare is over.

Post script: If Covid had not struck, they say that Trump’s re-election would have been near certain. So, there you are. If there was a silver lining to Covid, this is it.

Image courtesy: nytimes.com

“JUST” learning to live during the pandemic!

Vijay Yadav* is a small time vegetable and fruit vendor who has been carrying out his business in Mumbai since 2 decades now.  Ever since the lock down, in our apartment complex, he is one of the suppliers of fresh vegetables and fruits. Twice a week, we place order over WhatsApp to him and he delivers the same at the parking lot of our building. He informs us the due amount on WhatsApp and we pay the amount due to him through Google Pay.

22nd Aug, 2020 was Ganesh Chaturthi. Due to the current pandemic situation, we couldn’t go to the local market for Pooja related shopping (different types of Flowers, Garland…) on the eve of the festival. When we were wondering what to do, Meena*, our regular flower seller informed us to our pleasant surprise that she will home deliver whatever flowers and items we need and asked my wife to send the list over WhatsApp. On the 21st evening, the list was delivered at our ground floor. She informed us the amount and we made the payment to her through PayTM.

On 22nd Aug was also our Avani Avittam (Janeu changing ceremony) for which our regular Cheenu vaadhyar (bhatji) sent us the YouTube link to join him. From home, we completed the rituals and promptly sent the Acharya sambavana thro Google Pay.

In between we had to consult for a routine ailment with our Homeopath doctor.  We did the same over phone. He said he will send the medicines to our house within 1 hour. He has a tie up with Swiggy and the medicines were delivered at our doorstep. The doctor gave his UPI id for transferring his fees, which we did.

What is common in all these? It is that we and the other parties involved were able to carry on with life even during the lock down period without stepping out of our place, fairly smoothly. And if you look at it closely, this was made possible through a combination of Smart phones, Bank accounts (to which we could transfer the money) and more importantly the UPI platform through which we could transfer money real time into bank accounts of beneficiaries.

It was Dr. Arvind Subramanian, Ex-Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India who in his 1st Economic Survey document coined the term – “The JAM Trinity” and said that the potential of Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar and Mobile phone could be harnessed to plug subsidy leaks and ensure a more targeted delivery to those needy.  This was the beginning of Modi’s 1st term during which, the government gave a huge push to opening Bank accounts for the poor through the Jan Dhan Yojana and also advocated the use of Aadhaar for identifying the needy.  However, in the aftermath of Covid-19, I would tweak the JAM Trinity and say that it is the “Quad of JUST” which is helping to keep the bottom of the pyramid afloat during the pandemic.

If you look at the examples I have provided at the beginning, you would realise that even with the unexpected strike of the pandemic, what has been sustaining at least some fraction of the economic activity is a combination of

J (Jan Dhan Accounts) – through which we could transfer money to beneficiaries who are not so privileged like Domestic helps, small time vendors and so on.

U (UPI Platform) – without which money transfer to bank accounts through mobile wallets like Google Pay or PayTM for example, couldn’t be so easy and swift.

S (Spectrum) – as in the advent of 4G which has made data usage cheap and ubiquitous in India

T (Technology) – Without which all these would not have been possible at all.

In this four, I would like to focus on the UPI bit. United Payment Interface (UPI) developed by National Payments Corporation of India was launched in India in April 2016. But it was post the Demonetisation that UPI as a tool got its fillip in terms of adoption and usage. Just look at the numbers. From just 21 banks who were part of UPI in 2016 when it was launched, today it is more than 140. The transaction volumes have grown exponentially from 2.06 mn. in Dec 2016 to 1.49 bn. in July 2020. And in terms of revenue, it has gone up from Rs. 13.17 crore to Rs. 29.05 Lac crore in the same period!!

It’s been so much of a runaway success that Google (which is part of the UPI through its GPay product) has written to US Federal Reserve Board urging it to build a similar faster payment service platform in the US citing the case study of UPI.

As documented very well by Shankkar Aiyar in his book, The Accidental India, in post Independent India, almost all of the successful economic transformations happened as an answer to a crisis. Similarly, the success of UPI in India also, could be pointed towards the cash payment crisis situation that resulted due to Demonetisation in November 2016. While Demonetisation might not have yielded the originally intended objective of the government namely to suck out the black money from the system, I feel that it has delivered or still delivering other positive outcomes.

Among the top is the formalisation of the economy which is a Work in Progress. The huge success of UPI has made conducting business smoother and easier even during lock down times even for the micro business community. At the same time, the added benefit is the expansion of the formal economy where less and less transactions happen through cash.

The last few months ever since the pandemic struck, have been testing times for any country and its economy.  It’s my feeling that after the initial complete lock down phase of two months, Indians have accepted the reality and have started looking at ways and means of getting on with their lives even without any dole from the government in the form of cash support. Purely from the stand point of micro businesses, they have all tried to adapt their business models to at least survive and stay afloat. Accepting orders through WhatsApp, doing home delivery and equipping themselves with online payment options are some of these adaptations. And these may very well stay even after the pandemic is over. In that sense, while the media commentary (when not busy with Sushant Singh’s death that is) could be around doom and gloom due to Covid in India, the common man has learnt to live during the pandemic with the “Quad of JUST” and will to survive.

Postscript: Way back in November 2016, in the aftermath of Demonetisation I had written a post titled Cash Mukt Bharat (Read here) where I had fantasised of an India where cash transactions have reduced completely by 2025. We are in 2020. Looks like many things mentioned in that post have already become a reality.  Amen.

*All names changed.

Pic courtesy: Yourstory.com

Taming the Dragon!

This is intended to be a sequel to my last week’s blog– Return of the Dragon. If you haven’t read it, please read here.

The military standoff between India and China at the border is slowly turning into a diplomatic one with both sides waiting for other side to blink first. Marathon disengagement talks are going in parallel with coercive military build-up on both sides. And in India, we have set in motion a slew of things in an effort to “tame the Dragon”.  But what real options do we have to tame the Dragon?

I remember vividly that whenever we used to have these military tensions with Pakistan triggered by some terrorist attack, though we are a militarily and economically stronger nation, experts would say that a full blown war with Pakistan is not an option between two nuclear powered countries. At the same time, we were told that we must raise the cost for Pakistan to carry out terrorist activities, whatever that means. Since there is little economic activity going on between India and Pakistan, it doesn’t really make any difference to Pakistan even if we sever all economic ties.

Between India and China too, a full blown war is out of question considering the fact that we are both nuclear powers. The issue of longstanding boundary dispute can be resolved through talks and diplomatic efforts. But, since both countries cannot give up even a square inch of land, a solution to the boundary dispute is not coming any soon. Under these circumstances, the best option which is face saving for both is achieving Status Quo Ante!

At the same time, while pursuing diplomatic engagement to get the troops back to where we were before this round of escalation, it is necessary for India to raise the costs for China to deter it from indulging in border escalations.  This, I believe can happen only on the trade front.  On the trade front, I believe that China has more to lose than India if relations are spoilt.  And this is opposite to what the commentariat in the India media feel. That being the case, what are some of the options?

  • China is an exporting economy. For the past few years (coincidentally since Xi took over in 2012), the Chinese economy has been floundering, after years of high growth. Under the circumstances, it cannot shut business with a country like India which is poised to be the most populous country in the world soon. In 2019, we imported US$75 billion worth of goods from China. Those who say that this is miniscule compared to the total exports of US$2.5 Trillion China does, are missing the larger point. As globalisation weakens and Nationalism grows and in particular when large economies like the US, Japan and Germany are talking of de-risking from China in the wake of Covid-19, spoiling trade relations with India and denting the prospects for trade growth is the last thing China can afford. So, leverage on this aspect.
  • A quick look at the last quarter’s import data shows that Electronic Components, Telecom Instruments, Industrial Machinery, Computer Hardware and Peripherals are the top 5 categories of imports from China and take up almost 33% of total imports. As a country, we must roll out a solid, strategic plan for developing the domestic Electronic Hardware manufacturing industry. This cannot happen overnight. But can happen with a vision and a roll out plan in the next ten years. Considering the fact that the role of electronics, is on the continuous rise in every aspect of our life and every aspect of engineering, the scope for just catering to the domestic market and then emerge as a competitive, key part of global supply chains is huge. There has been talks in the past to build a globally competitive electronic manufacturing industry in India but this is the right time to translate those talks into actions on the ground.
  • Ever since, we lost lives of our soldiers in the border standoff, the cries of “Boycott China goods” have become louder and more visible. A total and real boycott of these is not neither feasible nor advisable under the current circumstances. Chinese components are a key cog in the Indian manufacturing wheel today.  Instead, whatever government does needs to be only “covert” and not overt. In short, kick off “Salaami slicing” in aspects of trade and commerce.
    • For example, for all government purchases, government cannot openly declare that it will not buy “Made in China” products. However, it can signal a preference to “Made in India” products.
    • Just last week, government made it mandatory for sellers to indicate the “Country of Origin” for their products offered on the GEM (Government E Marketplace) portal. While this was touted as a move to promote the Prime Minister’s Atma Nirbhar Bharat vision, that it was a move to identify products coming from China was not lost on trade observers. Government can do more covert actions like this.
    • For big infrastructure projects, go slow on Chinese companies. (There are many ways of doing this)

  • In the private consumption space, there is a groundswell of opinion among the common public against Chinese products. Usually this sentiment is very temporary. But now, as the government cannot take part directly in festering any Anti-China emotion, it can use the party, its loyal trade bodies and Non-profit bodies to do the job in keeping the sentiment alive for a long time. Though in terms of dollar terms, the reduction in imports in the consumer goods space may not be significant for China as a country, any reduction in demand and orders particularly with the weakening demand due to Covid-19, will affect the Chinese sellers. For example, for the upcoming festival season in India, even if the orders are reduced by half than usual for the many consumer items including domestic appliances, garments, plastics, gift items, decorative items etc. it will be significant blow.  And if that demand turns into orders for Indian manufacturers, it will also aid the economy here.
  • Creating stumbling blocks for Chinese origin businesses like more scrutiny of compliance matters is another way of covert signalling. For example, just last week, without citing any reason, India customs officials said that there could be delays in clearance of goods imported from China. Moves like these will raise the costs for those importing Chinese goods in India and indirectly act as a deterrent for promoting those products in India in the long run. Here, I would like to add that these moves cannot be sustainable in the long run. But, in the short term helps in messaging. And the Indian government doing this now is a smart thing to do. Manufacturing activity and demand in India is any way weak and tepid at this point in time. So, any delay of a few days here and there is not going the move the dial significantly. I am sure that this will be a short term prick rather than a long term change in process.

Now, there is a distinct possibility that China does retaliatory moves (we hear, it is already acting on delaying customs clearance of goods from India). But as I mentioned, today, India imports 5 times more than it exports. So, as of today, it hurts China more than it hurts India. Of course the imported goods are a part of the Indian economic activity and hence any delay or disruption affects those who are in that sector. It is a small cost to pay compared to the cost our defence forces pay with their lives at the border securing our sovereignty.

In conclusion, to tame the Dragon, we must first believe we can, punch above our weight and play to our strengths as a large consuming and growing economy. “Challenge is a dragon with a gift in its mouth. Tame the dragon and the gift is yours” goes a saying. Time to replace the word Challenge with China?

Packaging of the Package!

In India, in the past few days, most Indians or at least the urban folks have been hooked on to the television by 4.00 p.m. every day. Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a grand announcement of ushering in an Atmanirbhar Bharat with an economic package of Rs. 20 Lac Crore, not just the devil, hope was also in the detail. So, it was left to the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman to announce the details that would not belie the hopes of millions of Indians.

In India today and probably the world over, if one has to depend on the media commentary to make up one’s mind on an issue, it is virtually impossible. On any topic, the tone of the commentary and its conclusion can be guessed without even reading the piece or watching the full clip, by just looking at the author’s name or the medium carrying it. These days, very rarely you get to read a piece that gives a balanced opinion on a topic, the two or more sides of it, the pros and cons and possibly the positive and negative impact.  So, even to the slew of announcements the finance minister has been making, the reactions have been on predictable lines. The pro-government media/authors have been only praising the initiatives while those opposing have only picked up holes in the announcements. Balanced commentary is increasingly becoming as oxymoron.

It is under these circumstances that I feel, any government today needs to be super-efficient in its communication, so that it has the intended impact on people.  The usually communication savvy Modi Sarkar, has been found wanting particularly in these dire times, when it is utmost critical to bring in comfort and then confidence to the public at large. I will explain why and will try my best to provide a balanced view.

  • First up, the intention of the government not to get bogged down by Covid, but use it as an opportunity to re-define strategic priorities for the country is welcome. To that extent, Modi’s speech on the 12th May, was pretty much on point. There was a vision and though delayed, a financial economic package to the tune of Rs. 20 lac crore,  which are both commendable.
  • The details of the package were to be released in the next few days which is what happened in the last few days, beginning 13th Feb and ending today.
  • The announcements do reveal that the government has done a lot of homework and that probably explains the delay in the unveiling of the package. Having said that, there has been issues with the content and form.
  • First the content.
    • The government in its wisdom chose to use this opportunity not to just announce the economic stimulus package but also address long pending reforms and amendments in laws which is appreciable.
    • Globally, there is an Anti-China mood and having a strategic game plan to take advantage of the changing winds is important. So, some of the measures announced I believe, are in that direction which augurs well for the country.
    • While few may understand that some measures are meant for short term remedy and others are meant for long term transformation, most of us cannot make the distinction.
    • It would have been better if the Government had broken down the announcement into two parts.
      • The first one, to just focus on the immediate short term stimulus/support measures that will “comfort” the ailing strata of the society. This announcement was the one which was widely and eagerly expected. So, what is in it for the MSMEs whose businesses have suffered badly, the urban and poor workers who are left without work and wages, and the farmers who have lost their income?  In this regard, some of the initiatives like the expanded MSME credit facility even without collaterals, free ration to the poor including those without ration cards and the Additional MGNREGA allocation are greatly appreciable.
      • There has been all around pressing calls for cash transfer to the poor as the panacea for the migrant crisis that has unfolded. The government’s view is that, it believed in empowerment rather than entitlement as a route to support poor at this stage. Also, there is a view that money transfer may lead to longer lines in front of liquor shops. There are no doubt, merits in these arguments. But, considering the current acute distress situation, it would have been good if, the government opted for cash transfer to Jan Dhan accounts of women for the next six months.  That would have addressed the lack of money and the alcohol problem in one bullet.
      • The second part could have been reforms and parliamentary actions that are more strategic that will give “confidence” to investors – domestic and foreign.  Muddling all these and choosing to announce major and a lot of minor initiatives together, has resulted in a problem of comprehension.
      • On each of the days of announcement, Twitter and WhatsApp groups were buzzing with more questions than answers, as to what all these actually meant the Aam admi. If the urban elite couldn’t make out that, how do we expect the poor who are expecting some immediate succour desperately from the government to comprehend what is in it for them?
      • If restricting the announcement to the top four or five big “new” initiatives would have reduced the stimulus to Rs.15 lac crore or something, so be it. That is better than creating a Shock and Awe with a huge amount and eventually leaving the public to just count the zeroes in it for the rest of the year.
  • Second the form.
    • In India, most of us suffer from what I call as the “More Points in Power point” syndrome. We feel that if there are more points in the slide, it is always better. In the corporate world, this syndrome translates itself into “More strategies”, More Key Actions”, “More priorities”, More slides, More everything!
    • In this case, the government too being a victim of this syndrome, ended up re-hashing many old initiatives, repeating stuff which have already been announced in the last budget. For example, the “One Nation One Ration Card” initiative was first announced if I am right in 2016. Stuff like reforming the Essential Commodities Act etc. have been touched upon in the past budget speeches.

The result is that, the Finance Minister ended up making her third budget speech for this year, the only difference being, it was in tranches. From the government’s point of view, this would have helped in deflecting the headlines for a week from the migrant crisis and other related bad news. But, I am not sure if the budget speech type announcements have helped in either “Comforting” the needy or building “Confidence” among the business community!

When marketing Guru Philip Kotler first talked of the P’s of marketing, he just referred to 4 P’s – Product, Price, Place and Promotion.  As marketing evolved, more P’s like Positioning, People and Packaging got added over a period of time. In the modern retail world, packaging got a lot of prominence due its influencing role at the point of sale. In today’s era of political communication too, I believe, even an economic or a stimulus package needs to be “Packaged” properly to reach its desired outcome.

Lest we forget, Narendra Modi has been the maiden recipient of the Philip Kotler Presidential Award.

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya

Locking down a tippler!

In India, in the last few days, two set of visuals are making the headlines. One, is the unending stream of pictures of migrants walking along highways trying to reach their homeland. The other is of the long and unending lines of people in cities and towns in different parts of the country in front of liquor outlets. Ever since many of the state governments who couldn’t control their addiction to revenue from liquor (to borrow this fine phrase from Pratap Bhanu Mehta) decided to open up liquor outlets, it has opened up a Pandora’s bottle! Point to remember here is that liquor along with petrol/diesel are out of the purview of GST still and are in the state’s ambit for tax collection. So, not surprisingly most of the states opted for revenue maximisation ahead of Corona minimisation!

In India, the narratives of the so called experts are drenched in Anti Modi’ism. So, in the initial days of Corona, the narrative was around why India is not locking itself down like China did with an iron hand. In a few days into Corona, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did announce a complete national lock down, unprecedented and unimaginable to pull off in a culturally lax country like India. When that happened, the narrative shifted to the lock down not being thought out properly. The pictures of migrants walking along main highways did support this narrative.

During this period, calls from the commentariat including in the opposition were to do a direct benefit transfer to the needy of anything between Rs. 5000 to Rs. 12000 per month so that, many of the poor who have now lost their jobs and income can sustain. Along with this, there was also the call for free distribution of staples. In fact, Nobel laureate Dr. Abhijit Banerjee went to the extent of saying that targeted money transfer be damned and pushed for transfer of cash to the entire bottom 60% of the economy. He felt that targeting at this stage would be costlier and cumbersome.

In a while when the states started getting their act together to reach food to the migrants, the story was about how livelihoods are being lost due to lock down.  In the past few days, many experts tired of the lock down now are veering towards “opening up” the economy, as a complete lock down is no longer sustainable.  And that’s when the decision to open things up, which is now in the hands of the states, was taken by most of the states, who were feeling the pinch of empty coffers. And the key item that got ticked off in opening was the opening up of liquor shops.

And when the liquor shops got opened what happened?

  • In most places, all the gains achieved with so many days of social distancing got neutralised by thronging tipplers who threw caution to the wind.
  • In Bengaluru, on a Monday morning, you could see youngsters’ queuing up to get their stocks of liquor. In their prime, their parents lined up often in front of ration shops to get their share of kerosene, rice, sugar milk and other essentials.
  • In parts of Telangana, in some pictures where you could identify the people as not very rich or even middle class, men were seen lining up in braving dry heat.
  • In Nainital, Uttarakhand, people were seen braving hailstorm to buy liquor at a shop on the day liquor shops were open.
  • In Delhi, a man was seen showering flower petals on people standing in lines outside liquor shops apparently to celebrate them for helping the country’s economy!
  • There was also an invoice from Bengaluru that went viral showing liquor purchases for Rs. 52841 one shot!

Whichever way you look at it, there is something fundamentally wrong in what we saw as an after effect to the opening up of liquor shops. And here’s why:

  • What are the young men and women (who we can assume are working in IT or ITES companies) doing in front of liquor shops in Bengaluru on a fine Monday morning (1st day of the week) when their companies expect them to “Work From Home”?
  • In the other case of poor people crowding the liquor shops, what about their source of money? Did we not hear that many of them have lost their jobs and not getting paid due to lock down?
  • Or is it that they are using the little amounts transferred by the governments to quench their thirst for liquor instead of using it to buy ration and other essentials for their households?
  • Domestic violence reached an All-time high during the lock down period. The sheer number of men in the lines made us think of the women they go back to.

I was disappointed to see once again the media narrative on the above scenario. In the “liberal” worldview, calling for a prohibition is of course untenable. But, at least during these extreme situations of Covid related lock downs, I would have expected a strong questioning of the timing to open liquor shops. Instead what we saw in most media stories were:

  • What happened to social distancing norms in liquor shops? Why did the government not think through this?
    • Really? Even in normal shops, maintaining social distancing is a herculean task. And how can one expect discipline in liquor shops that are opening after many weeks?
  • Instead of opening the liquor shops, why can’t the government arrange for home delivery of liquor thro apps like Zomato, Swiggy, etc.?
    • Yes, the authorities in the midst of fighting the health hazards due to Covid must also spend their time on discussing with Zomatos of the world to ensure efficient door delivery of liquor to nook and corners of India including remote villages. Is it? If such efficiency can be attained in India for booze delivery, why can’t that model be put to use first to deliver essentials to people would be my question!

The fall out of this untimely and stupid decision is there for us to see. Mumbai has rolled back the decision. In Tamil Nadu, Kamal Haasan headed outfit along with few others challenged the decision in the court and obtained a stay on selling liquor for now. The state has now knocked at the doors of the Supreme Court! Few states have slapped very high taxes, which I don’t know will make any difference.

It is not very clear as to which is more dangerous? People’s addiction to liquor or the Governments’ addiction to revenue from liquor? And who has to give up the addiction first? My personal view which could be an unpopular one too is, it is high time governments view this issue in perspective. That is, to look at the so called revenue from Liquor and tobacco versus the money spent on health care to take care of ailments related to smoking and drinking. And when that is done over a longer period of 20-30 years along with the cost of social ills, it will be as clear as daylight that, in a country like India, prohibition in “some form” is essential. Which answers my question as to who should give up the addiction first. It is the State.

Winston Churchill apparently said, “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me!” in reaction to those who critiqued him for depending too much on alcohol. It will be however wise to realise that in the case of governments, it is the otherwise.

COVID-19 aftermath – Time to revive two flagship programmes of GOI

If there is one quote which has been oft repeated by commentators of all hue in the past few weeks as the world grapples with the COVID-19 crisis, it is this. Winston Churchill’s “Never let a good crisis go to waste”! As India locked itself down in its fight against Corona Virus, the lessons for future are many. And indeed it must learn those and never let this crisis go to waste, once things settle down. In India, we have a tendency to move on quickly from natural disasters and other calamities without learning the lessons and putting them to practice for future.

In the context of COVID-19, once we are out of the crisis completely, two programmes of the central government which were launched with much fanfare in the 1st term of Modi Sarkar but which lost steam or didn’t take off the way they were envisaged come to mind. It’s time to revive them and re-launch them with added rigour. And in the aftermath of the Corona virus pandemic, I do believe that the chances of them now doing well have got better.

On the 15th of August, 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, it caught the imagination of the public by and large. “A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150 birth anniversary in 2019,” declared the Prime Minister. This was the first time, cleanliness entered public discourse since Independence. Immediately after the launch, there was an air of excitement and flurry of activities. I remember voluntary groups and public carrying out weekend shramdaan to clean up the neighbourhood. Celebrities did their bit by participating in symbolic photo ops with brooms to spread the message of cleanliness.

What started off very well, soon started losing steam with the typical Indian attitude of laxity creeping in, after the initial enthusiasm.  From the government perspective, we also saw that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan from the original goal of a “Clean India” by 2019, moved to making India “Open defecation free” by 2019!  So, accordingly the focus turned towards building toilets across the country and giving the poor access to toilets even in the remotest of villages.  In his address to the parliament in Jan 2019, the President announced that over 9 crore toilets were constructed across the country under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan program and that the coverage of rural sanitation went up from less than 40% in 2014 to 98% in 2019.  While these are commendable data points, we were not close to becoming a clean and hygienic country by Oct 2019, as envisaged by the Prime Minister when he kicked off the programme.

While not taking any credit away from the government for pursuing this initiative, I have always maintained that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is not about cleaning and more cleaning but, reducing the need for cleaning in the first place. That essentially means developing instinctive disciplinary traits and attitude toward cleanliness like for example, the Japanese.  This calls for a huge attitudinal change among us as we are by and large happy to keep our own four walls clean while not being concerned about littering in public.

It is undisputable that COVID-19, in the last few weeks has increased awareness of self-hygiene as well as community hygiene in a big way in India. Use of sanitisers hitherto seen as a “NRI tantrum” while in India, has now got into the collective conscience of India. I do believe that thanks to social media like WhatsApp, the ills of a pandemic like Corona Virus have reached the nook and corner of India and hence messages concerning the need to maintain cleanliness may be received with more seriousness than before.  By the end of 2019, looking at the way the programme sort of petered out, I concluded that a “Clean India” may be a few decades away when the current student generation with more awareness from childhood stages take to public cleanliness more seriously.  However, now I feel that COVID-19 has given us a great opportunity to reach our goal of a “Clean India” probably a few years earlier and it is important that we as a country seize this opportunity.

Weeks or months later when we get over the COVID-19 crisis, the governments – Centre, States, local municipalities and panchayats should step up the gas on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan once again.  The government must use all the communication machinery at its disposal to build up on the Corona Virus messaging of “washing hands” to start talking about keeping one’s surrounding absolutely clean and safe to prevent further epidemics like this. We should move from friendly nudges to slapping heavy fines for offences like littering in the open, urinating on the side of the roads, Open defecation when toilets are available in the vicinity and spitting on the roads and walls. We must remember that making India a “Clean India” is not just the look out or job of the government of the day but is in the hands of the public. So, as a society, we must not let this good crisis go waste on the hygiene front and make our march towards a “Clean India”!

“Make In India” is another flag ship programme launched by Modi Sarkar way back in September 2014 with a view to give boost to the manufacturing sector in India with an eye on creating lakhs of jobs. Initially conceived to cover 16 industries, the scope was expanded later to include 25 identified industries. Five years hence, when one looks at the outcome of the programme, it’s a mixed bag. “Make In India” has seemingly done well in mobile phone and allied manufacturing with around 268 units producing phones and related accessories in India as of November 2019. This was just 4 in 2014. We are now the 2nd largest manufacturer of mobile phones in the world.  But beyond mobile phone manufacturing, other electronic manufacturing has not taken off in India as yet.  We are nowhere close to the objective set of making manufacturing contribute to 25% of our GDP. With the economic slowdown in the last few quarters and the disruption due to COVID-19, the outlook for manufacturing looks even bleaker.

This is where, COVID-19 could provide a window of opportunity to India in next five to ten years. COVID-19 which erupted from China with the industrial province of Wuhan as the epicentre, has ended up disrupting the global economy in more ways than one. When the virus spread was around China in the month of February, the talk was about how the global supply chains particularly in the Automotive, Pharma and electronics sectors have been disrupted. With the contagion now spreading alarmingly all over the world, COVID-19 could emerge as the single largest cause and effect on the global economy in many years. It is estimated that the global GDP could shrink by 2% this year.

The COVID-19 crisis has hastened the shift of global supply chains out of China actively a move, which gathered momentum in the height of US-China trade war last year and increasing labour costs in China over the last few years.  As we saw in reports, the Japanese government has announced support to companies shifting production from China back to Japan. Korean companies are reportedly exploring options with India to expand their capacities. The US and EU will eventually follow suit.

For India, this is a great opportunity to tap into this shift out of China.

It is good to see the Indian government sensing the opportunity and looking to further the cause of Make in India. Just recently, we saw a package of incentives being announced for the Electronics manufacturing industry with a focus not just on finished goods production but also developing downstream production units. Similarly package was cleared by the cabinet on the 21st March for incentivising production of chemicals and raw materials that go into bulk drugs production.  Initially these moves may help in softening our own dependence on China for imports of electronics and pharma goods but over a period of time will give a boost for exports once the ecosystem in put in place. So far so good. But these are not enough. Making India a part of global supply chains requires a well-co-ordinated (between Centre and states) 360 degree action plan to launch Make in India 2.0 in the light of COVID-19 that covers diplomatic, economic, commercial, human resources and even marketing front. This also requires changes in some of our laws (for example land acquisition) that can make ease of doing business a reality on the ground.

COVID-19 crisis is panning out in front of us as we speak. While we fight the health and immediate economic after effects of the same, it’s time to work on re-launching “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan 2.0” and “Make in India 2.0” in a couple of months and not let this crisis go waste.

Dear India, make 2021 the next 1991!

COVID-19: Turning the crisis into an opportunity!

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. What started off as an outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei province of China is now a pandemic that has spread in more than 130 countries worldwide as we speak. In India too, the number of people who have detected positive has been multiplying by the day. Most of the state governments are waking up to the reality and state after state have been shut down.

In this sombre time, it may not sound so appropriate to talk about tapping opportunities that may arise. But then, one of the key jobs of strategic experts in counties is to always look beyond the obvious, see ahead of today and tomorrow and peep into the future.  In India, if such experts do that, they will see a window to turn this crisis into a long term, game changing opportunity.

Few weeks ago, when Corona virus had not spread like it is today, other than the human calamity, discussions were about how global supply chains have been disrupted due to the outbreak in China. Today, with China controlling the spread quickly using strong arm action and with the virus spreading all over, discussions around supply chain disruption have receded.  The focus today is around containing the spread as country after country have found people inflicted by the virus. However, when the dust and storm around the pandemic settles down in a few months, policy makers and industry experts will start pondering over putting all manufacturing eggs in the Chinese basket. De-risking from China for future would be top in the agenda.  Already, we are beginning to see some noise in that direction.

For countries and manufacturing companies, de-risking from China is nothing new. Many of them started doing it ten years ago when China, in the back of around 10% GDP growth for few years in a row from 2003 to 2011, was on fire as an economy. High economic growth also means increase in wages which shot up from CNY 750 in 2007 to CNY 2420 in 2018! Coupled with raising wages was the non-availability of skilled labour. A factory manager in Shanghai way back in 2012 told me that after the Chinese New year holidays, half the workforce would not return as they would end up joining companies which are located in provinces with higher minimum wages and with more overtime potential. Invariably mobile phones and other high demand product manufacturing units would suck up a lot of skilled manpower leaving other production units to scramble for trained manpower.

The logical option was to expand facilities out of China, if not to shift the entire production. Many Japanese companies who had put up factories in Thailand, Malaysia and later in China went and invested in Vietnam. It was a golden opportunity for India to have tapped that wave in that period. But we missed. Vietnam in spite of not boasting of very high skilled manpower but with relatively low labour cost managed to take advantage of the Japanese expansion plans. I was told that companies used to travel to interior Vietnam provinces and literally call out in the streets with microphones like in the feudal days as part of recruitment drive for factories!

India with its low labour cost and abundance of skilled manpower, still couldn’t feature in the agenda of companies looking at de-risking from China. And there are many reasons for the same.

It’s a myth that foreign companies just go by low labour cost when they try to invest in manufacturing facilities outside of their existing country bases. What they look for is whether the entire manufacturing eco-system is in place. China showed the world as to how to put that kind of eco-system in place that includes availability of low cost land in plenty, abundant skilled and low cost labour, low interest rate regime, tax benefits/holidays, access to ports, high quality infrastructure in the form of roads, highways, airports and sea ports, access to vendor base (this is particularly critical for Electronics and Automotive production) and more importantly what I call as the “hygiene factor”.  And this is the comfort factor which expatriates develop for the country where they want to set up production.

In India, we do not attach much importance to this while planning but, in my experience this becomes the key, tilting factor when choosing between options. If the team of expats who spend time in the country looking at options, do not feel comfortable about being able to lead a decent quality of life, they would never recommend that country. We should not forget that when a large production facility is set up, there will be hordes of expats who will be spending time during the project set-up phase and also later at supervisory/managerial roles when the unit is up and running.

That’s why I would not squabble if our governments spend money and resources to put their best face forward when foreign leaders visit here. For, many a times, there is a delegation of corporate chiefs who accompany these leaders and it is important that they carry a good impression of India as a country when they visit. In a Japanese company I worked earlier, the decision to invest in India which was lingering around for a while was finally taken when the group Chairman visited India and got impressed seeing the campus and Golf course of Infosys in Bengaluru!. I am talking of 2005 and fortunately the traffic situation then wasn’t as bad as it is today!

Coming back to the hygiene factor, this includes availability of good international schools, safety for women, availability of their country cuisines and even stuff like “Not a dry state” or “No Beef Ban”…!

In the wake of COVID-19, it is my belief that India must put its best foot forward in pitching itself as a robust manufacturing destination to the world which is looking at options.  And for this the government must move on a “Mission” mode quickly and activate “Make in India 2.0”!  We may not be able to scale up the economies of scale of China but then we are not looking at China completely. Our pitch must be to position India as an augmenting base.

Compared to the 1st decade of this century when India missed the opportunity when companies were de-risking, I believe that we now stand a better chance overall and hence it’s worth taking a shot now. Our roads and highways infrastructure is getting better though it’s a work in progress. We can now boast of world class airports in all the metro cities. The ports infrastructure have improved leaps and bounds and our customs clearance processes have smoothened.  We could still do much better on the “Ease of Doing business” front, though!

Ergo, I do believe that with a focussed approach towards getting companies to invest in setting up production facilities in India, India can be a good option for companies contemplating to de-risk from China. For India, which is in desperate need of a boost to the economy, nothing works like expansion in manufacturing as it increases direct and indirect jobs.

Author and Economist Shankkar Aiyyar in his book, The Accidental India has documented how in India every landmark game changing event since independence happened as a response to a crisis. Going by that track record, we are in the throes of another crisis with COVID-19 and hopefully we will come up with a response that is game changing!

The last booster shot for the Indian economy came in the beginning of this millennium and that was due to a global threat of a bug! The Y2K phenomenon opened the flood gates for the Indian Software industry and helped erect a pillar for our economy called the “Services”! Twenty years hence, now, a virus could provide the booster shot for the economy if India gets its act together. That of getting the manufacturing ecosystem in place and tap the opportunity which could present itself in the coming months. It’s not easy. But then its not impossible either.