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.