BY D.C. PATHAK
As the corona pandemic takes its checkered course of high infliction and decline, uneven territorial spread and threat of relapse, there is a universal consensus on setting off initiatives for reviving the economic activity that had been pushed to a near paralysis over the months of this crisis. The latter had quite simply brought lives of individuals, societies and nations to a standstill and put the country’s economy on the path of negative growth.
Understanding the pandemic would have come easier to individuals with a scientific temperament but systems of governance generally were so overtaken by the pace of the unknown contagion that dissemination of appropriate information among the general masses became a casualty initially. Consequently, people in general were early on seized by a disproportionate pall of fear which had the effect of delaying the mitigation processes. Fortunately, India having made up for some lost time, is in a position to formulate a strategy of economic recovery resting on an assessment of the ‘predictability’ of corona’s spread based on analysis of data, study of its pattern of advance on the ground and identification of the sources of vulnerability among its human targets.
This has, in turn, helped the determination of ways and means of preventing its incidence and reducing its severity through calibrated ‘counter -measures’. The whole challenge bears resemblance to working out an Intelligence-based response to a threat which, in this case, happened to endanger the socio-economic existence of the people around the world.
The strategic framework of this response — that would also be conducive to economic recovery — has to have five basic planks.
First is the universal acceptance of a working hypothesis that an equation had to be envisaged between ‘life and livelihood’ in which the risk had to be made minimal to the point where it could be intelligently avoided by all, regardless of distinctions of class and creed. Social distancing — now well understood as the pivot of all mitigation efforts — had to be continued during the return to work. Secondly, ‘regional calibration’ of the pandemic is a realistic requirement for business or production activity that is re- launched either as part of an old established enterprise or as a startup. Lifting of the lockdown, return of public transport and reappearance of the local supply chain presaged the resurrection of business operations and these are all part of a heavily regionalised context . Even where the reinstallation of a project was achieved, its business connectivity with adjoining areas in terms of the level of demand generation there would determine its success.
The third paradigm is the ‘adequacy of medical infrastructure in the area’ which would create the external environ of optimism so basic to economic revival in the context of the pandemic. Fourth, economic recovery would not gather significant pace without an effective ‘private-public partnership’ coming into play in a clinical sense of business without political or ideological colouration. The strengths of both sides can complement each other to the advantage of the people and the nation. And last but not the least, the ‘leadership in business’ is going to be tested by the calls made on it by the learning that this pandemic has yielded for all stakeholders. Human resource management in particular, is no more a delegated function — the top men have to directly guide the policy implementation in that sphere after monitoring the current scales of availability of skilled manpower, feasibility of increasing the work output and the desired level of empathy for the employees that was now an extremely important determinant of economic revival in the post- pandemic scenario. Business development and management has acquired a local facet and cannot be blindly governed by global norms — even though the objective of acquiring global status for it would remain in place.
The lockdowns and the accompanied enforcement of restrictions were meant to break the unimpeded advance of the coronavirus and take stock of the country’s capacity to work out the plan of countering the threat. If that did help solution finding this did not happen before people at large suddenly became deeply embedded in the fear of death at the hands of ‘an unknown enemy’ and took to desperate measures to somehow escape ‘dying far away from home’. This is what created the tragic saga of migrants as the upshot of an inadequately understood policy decision and its blind implementation in the ‘curfew’ mode by the local authorities. With passage of time, however, people have by and large understood the logic of how the lockdown was meant to bring home the point that this invisible contagion followed a pattern of spread and could be avoided if the combination of social distancing, norm of face covering and discipline of hand wash for surface hygiene was consciously adopted.
India’s economy substantially ran on temporarily employed labour and will now have to bank on workers being brought back to jobs on better terms and assurance — which would mean fundamentally altering the old ways of doing business that the unorganised sector here was notorious for. In India businesses can revive more easily by utilising locally available hands — technically trained or otherwise — and Prime Minister’s call for being ‘vocal for local’ undoubtedly shows a deep understanding of the new situation in the business world. The importance of building a supply chain that could link up with global business, whenever the post- pandemic world would so demand, remains undiminished.
Economic revival in a situation of near ‘depression’ showing up in many parts of the world, is heavily dependent on the support and involvement of the state by way of giving financial impetus to enterprises in some form or the other, furthering the ease of doing business and offering private-public partnership. Rebuilding the Indian economy after the hit it had taken because of corona pandemic is a national task and no ideological barriers should be allowed to obstruct the cooperation that state and private business players enter into for the larger interests of the country. If the Modi government can keep corruption out of any such collaboration projects, people will support them. For enhancing efficiency, capability and output, entry of private sector into public undertakings can be considered — it will create job opportunities, strengthen competitiveness in global terms and even add to the transparency of democratic governance. Private-Public Partnerships make for trustworthy investments at a time when the nation needs them — they will also help to reduce trade imbalances India had for instance with China. In the post-Covid months the government has to do all that is possible to restart business and trade at all levels — the strong indigenous base of Indian economy can bounce back with a little support and empathy from regulators, tax agencies and local authorities. Happily, Prime Minister Modi is fully cognisant of the innate capability of our home economy.
Post-pandemic, world is laying down new norms of product development, customer relations, human resource utilisation , work place concept and business management in general. Corporate governance is on test as the situation favours flat organisations that cut down on unproductive bureaucratic hierarchies, demands hands-on leaders who can inspire their men to give off their best and not mind putting in an extra hour of work and calls for new strategies of human resource development. Re-skilling, introducing flexibility of working hours and instilling confidence among the employees about decision making while functioning alone at work place, are parts of the new approach. Above all, business leaders today are mandated to handle change and, in fact, ride change by discovering new opportunities of collaboration, M&A and diversification of product and services.
There is a premium on seeking partnerships for quicker growth and opting for long-term objectives rather than the gains of profiteering in the immediate range. India’s economic scene is going to throw up entrepreneurs whose strength is their merit and produce business leaders who are attuned to facing socio- economic challenges of these times and even enjoying them.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau. The views expressed are personal.)