Wanted: Swachh Bharat Abhiyan 2.0!

After about 24 long months, we are finally seeing a relief from Covid! I am hesitating to say that we are seeing the end of Covid yet, looking at the past propensity of the virus to take different shapes and names to haunt us.  In India now, we see normal life returning. Children have gone back to schools putting an end to the tyranny called “Online classes” at least for now. Employees have started working, meaning working from offices except of course those who continue to follow a hybrid model. Shoppers have started thronging the markets and malls. Cinema halls have started seeing crowds. Events of all hue are back. Travel for pleasure and work has re-started. Traffic is back on the roads with a vengeance.  And garbage, filth and littering on the roads are also back!

Flash back to the day when Narendra Modi announced the kicking off of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a Clean India mission during his Independence Day speech in 2014, few months after taking over as the Prime Minister.  He said, “A Clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150 birth anniversary in 2019!” On the 2nd Oct, 2014 on Gandhiji’s birth anniversary, Swachh Bharat Mission was launched. I vividly remember the excitement it created immediately. There was a buzz around Swachhata in the following days in the whole country.

Everywhere I went, I could see and hear people talking about a Clean India. Politicians led “photo op” sessions to clean their neighbourhoods.  Celebrities followed suit. Social workers led actual sessions to clean their neighbourhoods.  Children followed suit.  Dustbins started making their presence felt all of a sudden in public places. Administration started spending money on keeping towns clean. Tourist places started to become cleaner. Railway stations, Bus depots sported a cleaner look.  Making cities, towns and villages “Open Defecation Free” became part of this program. Construction of toilets got a fresh impetus.  Even Bollywood appropriated the fever when a film titled Toilet Ek Prem Katha was made with Askhay Kumar in the lead with toilets for women as the theme. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan had arrived.

India had not become a Singapore but there was a movement in the right direction. But down the line somewhere, the goal post got shifted. Somehow the government made “Open Defecation Free” (ODF) by 2nd October, 2019 as the only goal of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Parameswaran Iyer, who had resigned from the IAS earlier was re-drafted as Secretary of the Ministry of Sanitation and Drinking Water and was tasked with achieving the ODF goal. He made the unthinkable happen.

As of November 28 that year, some 10.14 crore individual household toilets were constructed under the programme. And as per the concerned minister’s statement in Rajya Sabha, the sanitation coverage in the country, which was 38.7 per cent as on October 2, 2014 had increased to 100 per cent and all the 5,99,963 villages of the country had declared themselves ODF.  Therefore, while this goal of achieving universal sanitation through toilet construction was achieved, which in itself is not a mean achievement at all, the original objective of a “Clean India” got buried somewhere in the garbage dump perhaps. I am not yet clear as to when the goal post got shifted.

With the return of the Modi Sarkar in 2019 in the back of a historic win in the elections where toilet construction also played a part, the original Swachh Bharat Abhiyan seemed to have vanished from the collective memory of the nation. Then of course by March 2020, Covid struck and everything else lost focus and priority.

It is therefore I feel, now that we have a reprieve from Covid and things are getting back to normal in India, it is time to put Swachhata on the National agenda again. I read that in October 2021, Modi launched the second phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban (SBM-U) and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) stressing that these missions were aimed at making India’s cities garbage-free and water-secure. So it looks like the program is in place. However, I don’t recollect (probably it could be due to our pre-occupation with Covid way back in October 2021) the launch of this second phase.

October 2nd, 2019 has come and gone and three more years have gone by. It is time to go back to the original idea of “A Clean India”. In my earlier posts on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, I had mentioned that if this program fails, it is not because of Modi. It is because we as public failed the program. I see now that people are back to littering on streets. Paan spitting and “painting the city red” never even paused. I pity the municipality workers who are given the job of cleaning road dividers time and again of the paan stains only to be painted red just in a few days. Men peeing on highways has become a common sight again. Those toilets which were put across highways have somehow vanished! Garbage is overflowing from the bins on to the streets. Public places like municipality parking lots in Mumbai and Pune (which I have seen first-hand) are reeking of squalor like in the past.

There is hope still. When one sees for example, the Ghats in Varanasi or the Railway stations these days, they are squeaking clean. Just that the awareness about Clean India has to be brought back as a National obsession.  India needs Swachh Bharat Abhiyan 2.0.

As I wrote before, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is not about cleaning but eliminating or reducing the need for cleaning in the first place. The onus of that of course lies with us, the public of India not the municipalities, not the State Government, not the Central Government and certainly not Narendra Modi.

Pic Courtesy: Swachh Bharat Mission website

The new LCS Trinity in the Carnatic World!

In the Carnatic music world, the Trinity refers of course to the three legendary composers – Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri. So, what is this new LCS Trinity I am talking about? Read on.

With the Covid pandemic stretching itself for close to two years now, there is hardly a domain in the world that it would not have disrupted. The world of Carnatic music is not an exception. Concerts typically involve gathering of people and travel – both of which were subjected to restrictions due to Covid.  The result – For the rasikas, no opportunity to sink their heart, mind and soul in some peaceful music in person and for the musicians no opportunity to perform live in front of an audience and revel in their applause.  Suddenly, the musicians found that they had a lot of time in their hands when lockdown happened.

This is not the case however for most of the Carnatic musicians usually. In normal times, their schedules are packed with live concerts throughout the year within and outside India.  The rise of the Indian diaspora, with a substantial chunk of them with origins from the south of the Vindhyas, has set the demand for Carnatic musicians outside of India soaring beyond imagination since the beginning of this millennium.

I would imagine that for most of the Carnatic artists, a typical year would look like this at normal times. Starting from November till Mid-January is when they would be stay put in Chennai, the global epicentre of Carnatic music, to be part of the “December Music Season”.  After this season is over, from Mid-January to end March is the window available for the musicians to perform in other cities in India. In between, you also have the Annual Thyagaraja Aradhana festival at Thiruvaiyaru which is also now being held simultaneously in other cities where usually the musicians participate. This period is also the season for Temple Ulsavams in Kerala. And Carnatic musicians of all hue make their presence felt in kutcheries as part of the ten day Ulsavam festivities.

Come April, it is the onset of summer in most parts of India and musicians travel to other parts of the world to perform during this window. Again in April during the Easter break, The Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival, which is touted to be the largest Indian classical music festival outside of India is scheduled, where many leading Carnatic exponents participate year after year.  By September/October with the onset of the festival season in India starting with Ganesh Chaturti and followed by Navarathri, you will find most of the musicians back to their bases to participate in concerts organised around these festivals in different cities. And in November, it is time to prepare for the “Season” ahead.

So, with this type of a crowded calendar, a typical Carnatic musician is so busy that he/she doesn’t have the time to think of anything else apart being in Pack-Travel-Perform-Repeat mode. But this was all before the global disruptor called Covid came and upset the rhythm of this well set routine.

During the pandemic induced lockdown since March last year, with more time and bandwidth at their disposal, Carnatic musicians have tried to re-invent and re-engineer themselves in more ways than one. Just like how the JAM (Jandhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) trinity helped the government to reach social benefits directly to those in need more efficiently, I would say that the LCS (Lockdown-Connectivity- Social Media) trinity has come in handy for the artists to stay connected with their audience. Many of the leading musicians lapped up this opportunity with both their hands and became social media savvy in this period.  Though most of them existed in social media before also, they now have started using it to converse with the rasikas and not just use it to put out schedules and other announcements like they did before.

T.M.Krishna, usually active on social media continued to engage with his rasikas during the pandemic period with his singing bits and in fact did a few fund raiser gigs streaming from home to support fellow artists who were deprived of income during the pandemic. The singer duo of Ranjani-Gayatri put out quite a bit of content on social media for listeners to watch and enjoy.  Trichur Brothers – Srikrishna Mohan and Ramkumar Mohan have been very regular in uploading their singing videos on social media.  Vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan, through a series of webinars answered questions of rasikas on various aspects of Carnatic music in general and his music in particular while explaining the technicalities of the form.  Rajesh Vaidya became an instant hit with his short and sweet “Do you have a minute?” series where he plays bits of hit film songs and puts them out almost every day. Veena exponent Dr. Jayanthi Kumaresh is another musician who has been extremely active on social media since the pandemic in engaging with her rasikas.

We could also get a glimpse of the other sides of the artists as well. Famed singer Sudha Raghunathan let us enter into her kitchen with her short videos of singing while cooking.  She also displayed her anchoring skills by doing online interviews with a wide range of interesting personalities.  Singer Unnikrishnan, apart from showcasing the talent of his daughter Uthara through joint singing sessions, also showed that he is a fitness freak by regularly posting his work out videos.

Among the Carnatic musicians, if I have to pick up one musician who stood out in engaging with the rasikas during the last few months, it would be Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subramanyam.  Using a combination of his own pleasing personality, savvy marketing and smart use of social media, Sanjay constantly upped the ante in terms of rasika engagement. While in the initial few months of the lockdown, he was putting out some of his old recorded videos, he then started investing a lot of time and effort on this with a help of a social media team and started putting out fresh and interesting content which stand out on a regular basis.

In a series of short 2 odd minute videos titled “On That Note”, Sanjay narrates interesting side stories and episodes from his life including some of his interactions with legends like M.S.Subbalakshmi, M.L. Vasanthakumari etc.  Similarly, “Short Notes” – another series of short videos where he takes up a raga and sings few phrases, is now a huge hit among his followers. He typically ends these notes with phrases from Maestro Ilaiyaraaja’s hit songs in the same raga. In some of his videos and interviews he has mentioned that he is an unapologetic fan of Ilaiyaraaja and #RajaisGod is his favourite hashtag which he uses often on Twitter.  It is interesting to see Sanjay bringing out such nuances from film music which otherwise is not possible to appreciate for an ordinary music listener who is not trained in Carnatic music.  I can see that this aspect of highlighting the Carnatic influence on film music has become a huge hit among his followers.

In continuing with his rasika engagement efforts, he has started a paid channel – “Sanjay Sabha” where full-fledged professionally recorded concerts are put out regularly for people to pay and watch.  All this has culminated now with a series of live concerts in Chennai as part of “Sanjay Sabha” for the ongoing music season. From the social media conversations on his handles, it is clear that these efforts have generated a lot of interest and chatter among music followers.

One can also see that his web site is regularly updated to the last detail in terms of events, schedules and other press notes. Sanjay also keeps penning his thoughts on a blog and the last one was about the experience of taking the stage for a live concert after two years! Even for a seasoned musician like Sanjay, there is a re-discovery and rebirth, I reckon.  I do recall that in the dotcom boom period in the late 90’s, Sanjay ran the web site on Carnatic music where he answered questions from rasikas and put out some content. But I guess over a period of time, the site met a gradual death. So now in the back of the LCS trinity he is now back with his site with a slew of offerings and content of interest to the rasikas and I am sure that this inning will be longer and permanent.

The pandemic will hopefully end soon but I hope that the engagement kicked off by the musicians will continue even in the post Covid era with the help of the CS (Connectivity-Social Media) duo.  This will go a long way in mainstreaming Carnatic music and further open it up to a newer audiences.

Postscript: It’s not my take that the LCS Trinity is exclusive to Carnatic world or something like that.  It is relevant to many other fields as well. I have just tried to explain how LCS has helped to transform even a very traditional domain like Carnatic music.

Image Courtesy: Outlook India

HNY to HNQ??

As I sit to pen my first blog for this year in the early days of another New Year, I am reminded of my first post for the last year which was titled “Thank God it’s a New Year”! That time (1st week of 2021) we were just coming off what appeared like a terrible year. The entire world was disrupted by the global pandemic in a scale not seen or heard in many, many decades.  But then by January, we already were recovering and started gradually getting back to pre-Covid way of living. Lockdowns were over, travel started and so on. So, the theme of my piece then was that the worst was behind us and we must thank God that we are in a New Year and raring to go.

In the year 2021, we did finish the first quarter on a high. There was optimism all-around of a sharp turn around. But then, just in a few weeks, the world in general and India in particular was mauled by the 2nd wave.  I shudder to recount the horrifying things which were happening around us in the months of April/May/June/July. Enough to say that the cursed tentacles of the virus were still spreading all over spelling doom on all recovery predictions.  Drawing room conversations were all around the availability of vaccines and the time when vaccines will provide an eventual shield for the virus.

If we recall, by the third Quarter of 2021 however, things on the ground started changing rapidly. The vaccination pace picked up dramatically with better availability of vaccines by August. And we were talking about flattening the curve for the second time. Through the festival season in the months of October/November the mood was upbeat and we could start seeing the recovery even in “Contact sensitive sectors” like travel, tourism and so on.

Things started dramatically changing again with the discovery of the Omicron variant in South Africa in early December. And towards the end of December and as we speak now, we are witnessing another rapid spike in cases and preparing ourselves for the inevitable third wave!  If you have been following the IMF predictions for the global economy and specific countries through the pandemic, you will realise that they have been changing their forecasts every quarter up and down. Now, what am I trying to drive at here?

With such an uncertainty in the world triggered by a virus and its variants today and it could be something else tomorrow what does it leave for long range planning for a country /company /household etc.?  It is tough. To elucidate this point let me talk about the way Indian government handled the economic support during the pandemic versus some of the larger well to do countries. When the pandemic struck in March 2020, big economies like the US, Canada and European countries who could afford, opted for cash transfer to its people to pump prime the demand and therefore the economy. Some of the Non-resident Economists of Indian origin of the likes of Dr. Raghuram Rajan, Dr. Kaushik Basu and Dr. Abhijit Banerjee also advocated this route for India and were extremely critical of the Narendra Modi government for not going the whole hog and opting for a more calibrated “Drip support” approach.

In this approach, instead of direct cash transfer, the government opted for free supply of rations to the needy and generous support of working capital to ensure that the businesses stay afloat. There were also moratoriums on loan repayments for most part of the year 2020. The logic of the economic think tank that included the likes of Dr. Bibek Debroy (Chairman – PM’s Economic Council) , Sanjeev Sanyal (Principal Economic advisor in the Finance Ministry) and Dr Krishnamurthy Subramanian (Chief Economic Advisor) was to take one step at a time when how the virus situation will pan out was uncertain, uncertainty being the key word. The time period for which any support was to be provided was not clear. Also another important thing, during the pandemic induced lockdowns, the issue was in the supply side largely. People stopped going to salons during the pandemic not because they didn’t have money. The same logic can be extrapolated to other service sectors as well. So, the idea was to keep the powder dry for eventualities in the future. As per IMF’s Dr. Gita Gopinath, large economies including the US have no more leg room left to keep supporting the economy and hence are facing an imminent challenge if the virus continues to hold sway. I must say therefore that the Indian think tank certainly stand vindicated on this account when we had to contend with the second wave and now the third wave.

My point therefore is, are long term planning or Annual plans relevant anymore? Things on the ground change so dramatically and drastically these days that any assumption for the better or worse of the future happenings is proved wrong very quickly. Since in India we understand similes from Bollywood easily, let me give an example. RRR is the next film after Bahubali from the ace director Rajamouli. This is also a magnum opus that has been made in multiple languages. Obviously due to the huge budget involved, it had to opt for a theatrical release and was planned for a release in January. The entire team was seen doing mega roadshows in different cities as part of the promotion for whole of December. But then, I see today that they have taken a call to postpose the release due to the like increase of restrictions in many cities due to the Covid surge of late! So it is a matter of few weeks for things to change for the fate of a film that was on the works for five years!

Even in the context of business in the pre-Covid times, I have not been a big fan of rigorous annual planning as, over a period of time, I have seen that assumptions and market conditions change drastically leaving the annual plans as an academic exercise. Now in the post Covid New normal, I feel that time has come to focus on QSQT (Quarter Se Quarter Tak).  While an overall Annual plan can be made for directional purposes, the drilling down of everything to quarters and months and weeks is a wasteful exercise in my opinion. In the sense does it make sense to assume that Omicron is not going to impact the economy so much and plan expenses accordingly for the coming fiscal year? Or we in any position to comment the recurrence of any new waves in the future? Instead in the current situation, whether it is the country or corporation or housing society or our own house hold we may be better off to keep the horizon of three months and take it from one quarter to another. On that note, wishing you all a Happy and contented New Year or should I say Happy New Quarter (HNQ)?

Image courtesy: Kat Millar.com

Debate around the Growth of the Indian Economy!

Few weeks ago, the GDP numbers for the 1st quarter of this fiscal year for India were published. As per that, the Indian economy grew by 20.1%. In the following days, there were columns, Op-Eds and Social media commentary on whether it was a good quarter or not. Since “Neutral media” is an Oxymoron, depending upon the leanings of the media, the economic performance was either branded “historic” or “pathetic”. There are no surprises here and we have now learnt to live with the media spin on all issues.

Along with the media, the tribe of “Neutral Economists” is also on the wane.  Depending upon their political affiliation, the first quarter performance was touted to be “record breaking/highest ever” or “worst/shocking” in decades by reputed economists.  Therefore for an Aam Admi, it is difficult to judge what actually the situation is. And the truth as in many situations may be somewhere in between.

I am no economist but as an ardent follower of the Indian economy, I tried to make sense of the numbers and the trends thereof and this is what I find. I would like to hear the opinion of the readers as well on my hypothesis.

In isolation, a GDP growth of 20.1% is of course very good. But, we should not forget that this is at the back of a low base of -24.4% same Quarter last year. In that sense, some of the commentary from pro Government circles that this growth is massive and is earth shattering etc. is immature.  At the same time, commentary from the opposition side comparing this with GDP rate pre-Covid and claiming that actually it is lower than what it was two years ago is equally immature. And this is why.

First, the reality is, on a trend line after a massive negative growth of 24.4% in Q1 last year and growing marginally by 1.6% in Q4, a growth of 20.1 in Q1 this year shows that the economy is indeed recovering and the recovery is V-shaped to be precise. This is certainly to be happy about.

Second, we must keep in mind that during Q1 this year, we got caught by a massive second wave which again put several curbs on the functioning of the economy, which was as such firing at much lower levels than before. So, among the eight buckets which contribute to the GDP namely Manufacturing, Construction, Agriculture/forestry & fishing, Mining & Quarrying, Electricity/Gas/ Water & other utilities, Trade/Hotels/Travel & Communication, Finance & Real Estate and Public administration, Defence & other services, it is obvious that a couple of engines are not firing at all. It is therefore natural that when you compare with the pre-Covid situation, the GDP in absolute numbers will be lower. This however does not take away the fact that with the easing of restrictions, the economy is obviously recovering.

Third, let us take a look at the monthly GST collection numbers for the past couple of years.  The average monthly GST collection figure in 2018-19 was Rs. 98,114 Cr. and the average in the 1st four months of 2021-22 is Rs.113,333 Cr. 2018-19 was pre-Covid, normal times and these four months are right in the midst of Covid. And compared to Rs. 101,818 Cr. monthly average last year. So just a cursory glance shows that the economy is on the mend clearly this year.

Here, I would like to dwell into a larger point and thereafter a question.

I would presume that GST collections represent transactional activity in the economy with respect to both goods and services. We are all aware that post the pandemic all “Contact” based sectors have been severely affected. This includes the likes of Travel, hospitality, Wining and Dining (all these for business and pleasure), impulse shopping, recreation and entertainment of all sorts and other human touch related services (salons, spas…). While the Software industry per se has not got affected due to Covid with “Work from Home” filling in well, the ecosystem around it has been significantly disrupted. This includes transportation, catering, real estate, utilities, other discretionary spending and stuff.

As common public, our shopping is mostly restricted to what is required. We travel only when it is utmost required.  The “Festival economy” which is big in India has been crippled since last April.  So my question is, when transactions around goods and services have been curtailed, how is it that the monthly GST collections have shown a growth over 2018-19? (Pre-pandemic period)

There are can be two inferences from this trend:

First, if the monthly GST collection is showing such a robust 15% growth (over 2018-19) even during the pandemic times, once we are done with the pandemic and when all the cylinders start firing, we are looking at an exponential growth in monthly GST collection figures. (Even adjusting for inflation)

Second take away is, either with whatever limited avenues left to us, we are consuming much more than average or there is a significant shift towards formalisation of the economy. I would like to believe in the latter. I don’t think we are consuming more than what is required. However, certainly our purchasing patterns have changed. Due to the pandemic imposed curbs, it is possible that our dependence on the neighbourhood mom and pop stores have come down and we have got used to the convenience of door delivery for everything.

As a personal example, pre-Covid, we used to buy vegetables and fruits from our neighbourhood bhaiya. Once lock down struck, this shifted to a vegetable vendor who was arranged by our apartment complex for door delivery. Here, payment was through G-pay/PayTm etc. Now in the past few weeks, the same vendor is now part of an E-Commerce aggregator called Bhajiwala.com! Bhajiwala.com, I am sure is within the ambit of GST and hence clearly part of the formal economy! My view therefore is, the benefits of GST implementation which we were all looking forward to is beginning to accrue and will be more visible when we are out of the pandemic.

It was widely believed that once GST is implemented, it will add 1-2% to the annual GDP. I now believe that once the pandemic is over and when economy starts firing in all cylinders like before, the bump due to GST could be in excess of 2% because of the increased formalisation of the economy is the last 2/3 years. This I am talking about even after the pent up demand effect.  That should put the naysayers of the GST to rest.

Though we cannot take the stock markets as a real indicator of the state of the economy thanks to its fickle and speculative nature, probably the markets are seeing into the future as above which others are not.  Which is why the markets have been on fire since the last few months even in the midst of the pandemic.

In conclusion, I would like to say that yes, the high growth in Q1 is due to the low base effect.  Yet, it is a significant milestone and pointer towards a robust economic recovery. It is certainly one to be cheered upon if not celebrated upon as yet.  Acche Din are around the corner!

Pic Courtesy: The Economic Times

30 Years of “1991”!

As I was wondering what to write on this week, I realised that in a few days, half of this year 2021 will be over.  Back in January, everyone thought or rather hoped that we were all done with the “New normal” and soon one will get back to the “Old Normal” in more ways than one. Till March, we were coasting on towards that. Then came the dreaded 2nd wave leaving us literally gasping for breath. And in no time we are back to hoping to see the end of this year.  Just the feeling we had the same time, last year.

And probably 30 years ago in the year 1991.  If 2021 has been a tough year for those who are running the country, I reckon 1991 would also have been so and for a variety of reasons.  When the history of post independent India is written, the year 1991 would feature prominently. Today, the year is associated with the unleashing of economic reforms and liberalisation in India and being crowned as the ‘Year that changed India”. But it has got so many other associations to it, which is what I thought I will write about, when we are in the midst of “30 Years of 1991”!

As 1991 dawned, I was in my 2nd year of MBA course in Bombay. Just as the year commenced, we were witness to the 1st televised war in the Gulf when US attacked Iraq to liberate Kuwait in “Operation Desert Storm”. In India, cable TV was still in its infancy. But we could watch some visuals of the war in “The World This Week” programme which made New Delhi Television (NDTV now) and Dr. Prannoy Roy household names in English speaking households in India.  I must add here that those days as young students we had tremendous appetite for news and current affairs which is seemingly missing in the current generation. Oh yes, that law of diminishing marginal utility! When News is a plenty all around, it finds lesser and lesser interest.

And it was during this war in 1991, that India probably removed its veil of Non Alignment, when the then government under Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar allowed re-fuelling of US Aircrafts in India. The decision had to be soon reversed under immense political pressure eventually in particular from the Rajiv Gandhi led Congress which was supporting the Chandra Shekhar government from outside. Though the war happened in the Gulf, it had its own implications for India as a country. Oil prices sky rocketed pushing the imports bill to hit the roof and plunging the economy into a deeper crisis. And we had a humanitarian crisis to deal with as the Gulf was home to millions of Indians.

In May, I was back in Madras after completion of the course and preparing to return to Bombay after a short break. On the 21st May, 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Sriperumpudur near Madras by a suicide bomber at an election rally. The death of Rajiv Gandhi that too in that most tragic manner shook the nation. Rajiv Gandhi was all set to return as the Prime Minister with the Congress getting a comfortable lead. But his untimely death put the country again in chaos and when the results came, Congress became the single largest party but short of majority on its own.

It is difficult to speculate as to what would have happened to our country had Rajiv not been killed and had he returned as the Prime Minister. It was widely believed that having learnt his lessons from his first stint, Rajiv was a wiser man and with his youth, energy and impatience would have changed the course of the country for the better.

With the loss of Rajiv, P.V.Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister heading a Congress led coalition government. He made Dr. Manmohan Singh his finance minister and between them unleashed a slew of economic reforms that liberalised India. Those were eventful days and day after day, headline grabbing announcements followed.  Dramatic devaluation of the rupee, pledging of the country’s Gold reserves, announcement of the New Trade policy, announcement of the New Industrial policy that would end the licence-permit Raj,  the historic Budget presentation and so on. When all these were happening, one didn’t realise that these will forever change the destiny of India.

Unlike now, when economists and policy experts are in unison singing the praise of the 1991 reforms, back then the reforms were always projected as “Acts in Duress”.  Even among the ruling Congress, there was no consensus on the reforms forcing Dr. Singh to make that famous quote that he walked around with his resignation letter in his pocket.

Elsewhere in the same year, the dissolution of the Great Soviet Union was in rapid progress and by December the entire Soviet Union was formally dissolved that eventually ended the Cold War.  Google also tells me that the World Wide Web was launched to the public in 1991 and Microsoft.com went online, though I have no recollection of these!

Coming back to India, not to be limited to financial problems, in the same year 1991, on June 28th, Kashmiri militants kidnapped the then Executive Director of IOC, Mr. Doraiswamy. He was finally released after a couple of months in exchange of a few militants. I remember this vividly as day after day front page in the newspapers were occupied with this news.

For India, not just 1991 but the next two years were indeed full of challenges that wrecked the country pushing it from one crisis to another.  So, looking back, as a country we came out of all that relatively unscathed as we kept growing to what we are today, though the pace and extent of growth may not be our liking.

30 years hence, in 2021, as a country we have been inflicted hard by a global pandemic that has been hogging everyone’s attention. Our economy has been bruised badly. Lives have been lost and still counting.  Clearly not just India, but globally we have been set back by couple of years if not more.

As we come out of the 2nd wave, a recovery is imminent but not without the potential danger of further waves. We can only hope that this time also we will follow the 1991 cycle.  If you remember, the economy fared poorly in the 1st year of the reform (1991-92) but from 1993-94 after two years, the economy was on a roll.

Going back to 1991, personally for me that was the year when I started my professional career and so along with the country, the year has a personal significance and it will be always etched in my memory.  Where were you in 1991 and what are your memories of that year? Do share in the comments section.

India’s Vaccination Conundrum!

Delhi, India’s capital reported around 1600 new cases yesterday with the test positivity rate dropping to 2.5% from a high of 35% in April. Mumbai, the commercial capital reported around 1300 new cases yesterday. In the 1st half of April, the daily cases were averaging 10000 plus.  Both these cities are under near complete lockdowns and the reduction of activities has helped to bring the case load down. Elsewhere in India, many cities and towns are still showing a worrying trend and the respective authorities have imposed circuit breakers and I am certain the numbers there will also show a decreasing trend in the coming weeks.

Now with the decrease in the case load in Mumbai, already there is a clamour to “Unlock” so that business activities can resume. In Delhi, the Chief Minister has said that if the cases continue to drop for another week, his government will start the process of unlocking. As we saw in the past, when the lockdowns are eased, there is a chance that the case load goes up. It is a vicious cycle of numbers going up and down with locking and unlocking. Hence, at this point of time, the only option we have, to break this cycle is to rapidly vaccinate majority of the population.

India’s vaccination program thus far has only flattered to deceive. The programme kicked off on the 16th Jan, 2021. It is now over 5 months and yes, we have administered over 18 crore doses but, the coverage has only been 3% of the population. If we continue at the same pace, we will take years to cover the total population by which time, wreckage on all fronts due to Covid will be humongous. It is clear as daylight that we have to up our ante on the vaccination front as of yesterday.

This is where the government’s overall planning on the vaccination program begs all kinds of questions.   During the initial phases of the program that was meant to cover health workers and later senior citizens, one thought that the program was proceeding smoothly. However, it was during the 2nd phase – that of citizens over the age of 45 commenced, the whole program started falling apart. From a phase of vaccine hesitancy we quickly moved to vaccine shortages. And this was happening exactly at the time when the second wave Covid numbers were hitting the roof on a daily basis.

A panic struck government facing fire from all directions on a single day opened up the vaccination program whereby it allowed vaccine makers to sell 50% of their stock to states and private sector. And in another bizarre move, it opened up the vaccination to 18+ age group with a caveat that this will not be sponsored by the Central government.  Bizarre, because the opening up happened when there were no sufficient stocks to cover the 45+ age groups adequately.

Today as far as vaccination is concerned, there is a strange situation. As I mentioned earlier, there is less vaccine hesitancy among people. There is a good awareness and urge amongst many to get the vaccination done. However, due to the shortages, we are back to the good old “IRCTC” days. The tyranny of OTPs, slowly loading site and the fastest finger first routine are back. Those who are not IT savvy, have to make the daily trips to the centre and try for walk in jabs and of course deal with big lines there, that too during Covid times. The Cowin portal which at the outset is impressive is a gate keeper today. And for some strange reason it is available only in English language!

As I have written in my earlier posts, as far as Covid is concerned, there have been many unknowns. The magnitude of the second wave came as a big surprise and caught all of us in the back foot. I have argued that no government in the world could have planned and smoothly handled a wave which is 3X and 4X times the peak of the previous wave in terms of hospitalisation requirements. On this, the barrage of excessive criticism on the Indian Government has been a bit unfair and we should cut the government some slack on this.

Having said that, where the Government and here I mean the Central Government, has been found wanting is on the vaccination project front. In this project, there were lesser or no unknowns. Data of the population, the production capacities of the indigenous vaccine makers were all available right in front. Yet, we did not move on securing enough stocks of the doses for vaccination. It is not clear if it is executive decision making or bureaucratic sloth that has landed us in this situation. Either way, we missed the bus.

While the important aspect of arresting the second wave is in progress, the Central Government must shift its priority to bringing the vaccination program back on track. We are now seeing that the program of state governments procuring vaccines directly is not taking off. In response to the global bids floated by the Municipal Corporation in Mumbai (BMC), only suppliers of Sputnik have quoted. And there again, with the stringent supply conditions of the tender, I doubt any supply will happen in the near future!

Therefore, the onus is on the Central Government to ensure sourcing of the required doses of vaccines required to vaccinate at least 70% of the population by end of this year. That would mean making available over 160 crore doses from now till December. In a recent press conference, the government put out a table that said that the Production/Availability of vaccines from August to Dec is 216 crore doses. With this availability picture, has the central government placed the orders on the vaccine makers already at least for the approved ones? Are the approval process for the other vaccines on queue put on fast track? Has the government assessed the working capital requirements of the indigenous vaccine makers and committed the same? Is the supply chain secured for the production of the vaccines as per capacity? IS work happening on the Cowin site to make it more citizen friendly?

If the answers are yes, we have learnt from the past mistakes. If No, we have decided to live “Ram Bharose”.

Image Courtesy: Amul