Covid as a springboard for take-off

It is only during extreme situations that reality dawns and path-breaking visionary actions are taken

By Author Dr Bharat Damani   |   Published: 20th Jun 2020   12:05 am Updated: 19th Jun 2020   10:55 pm

The Covid-19 pandemic has created chaos around the world. It has seriously and radically affected the world economy and the way people live. While all nations are in unison in taking precautionary measures, what would happen after the pandemic wears off? Would we learn from its consequences and improve or will we go back to our earlier methods?

It is only during extreme situations that reality dawns and path-breaking visionary actions are taken. Surely, some radical decisions must be taken. What could and should they be in the post-Covid scenario?

Social Distancing of China

Since Covid-19 originated in China, countries like Japan and the US have already started economic social distancing by encouraging their companies to move out of China. Japan has announced a $2.2-billion package for its manufacturing firms to move out of China. The Kearney annual Reshoring Index report indicates US manufacturing imports from China to be declining with a clear shift to 14 other Asian countries.

A school of thought backed by Schumacher’s concept of Small is Beautiful advocates smaller manufacturing facilities across various locations, which can address local economic needs, promote local employment and arrest migration. These initiatives will gather momentum and result in reasonable, if not massive, relocation of manufacturing facilities to other developing countries in the Asian and African continents.

Social Distancing in India

Four major aspects, which can have a large impact, are discussed for radical decisions and immediate implementation while the iron is hot.

Economic Activity

The need for social distancing is firmly established. How does one continue this after the lockdowns are lifted and the pandemic subsides? For this, one needs to tackle the root cause, which creates social aggregation and migration to economic hubs. Migration is a result of livelihood opportunities, which arise due to concentration of economic activities. While this cannot be altered, governments can reactivate the development model of backward or less-developed areas to create alternative economic hubs of industrial activity, which create local entrepreneurial and livelihood opportunities.

The current situation has demonstrated beyond doubt that when push comes to shove, many people can work from home, can work remotely yet be connected by online sessions, meetings and activity, can adapt and learn new ways of doing business and to live safely. Taking a cue from this, smaller towns and Tier 2-3 cities can be developed into hubs of industrial, commercial and service activity by shifting company operations to these areas. This would decentralise operations and lower economies of scale in the conventional sense but create reverse migration, decongest cities and its high population density areas, create local employment, local entrepreneurial talent and upskill the masses.

The government will have to encourage these movements by providing quality infrastructure in terms of connectivity through roads, railways, waterways and airports (which in many cases need to be upgraded and used more efficiently), ensure adequate availability of water, electricity and sanitation facilities, undertake planned town development on the lines of smart cities, ensure efficient local and regional decision-making to facilitate such development, significantly enhance the ease of doing business, and most importantly, improve coordination across inter and intra departments under State and Central governments.

The private sector can chip in with quality education, skill development, housing, healthcare, banking, telecom, high-speed internet, warehousing, and, of course, the engines of economic activity like manufacturing facilities, commercial and service activities.

Covid

Population Density

Migration leads to increased population density in larger cities which often forces or leads to creation of slums. Previous attempts at slum redevelopment have met with limited success. This is the right time, and perhaps the only time, to take the bull by the horns and undertake a massive planned redevelopment effort, overriding and aligning all obstacles and interests, to convert all slums in major cities into hygienic liveable dwellings. For example, Dharavi, which is touted as Asia’s largest slum, can be converted into Asia’s largest human upliftment project resulting in the creation of Asia’s largest hub of migrant self-employment and livelihood complex. Other slums can also be suitably converted into hubs of entrepreneurial activity.

This is indeed a challenging task and hence can be done only when all stakeholders are together for a common and critical national cause. Local rules like floor space index, layout norms and space per person must be revisited to provide adequate free and open spaces within and around homes and establishments to ensure social distancing can be implemented.

Health and Hygiene

Most slums do not have in-house water and sanitation facilities. A community point is provided but permissions for in-house facilities are not forthcoming for want of some documents. This results in an extremely high number of persons using the common facilities, which can be a potential health hazard.

Authorities should proactively permit and provide in-house water supply and sanitation facilities to all dwellings. Ideally, it should be made mandatory for municipal corporations and State governments to ensure such in-house facilities are created across the country. Simultaneously, awareness of the importance of health and hygiene must be spread and violations must be dealt with stiff penalties. Unfortunately, many good habits are formed by compulsion and not really by consciousness.

Large Gatherings

India has a penchant for large gatherings, be it for reasons and occasions of personal, social, cultural, religious, political or sports. Huge efforts and resources are involved to mobilise, organise, conduct and manage such gatherings to make the event a success. However, the process of hosting the event puts tremendous pressure on the local infrastructure and support systems. It often disrupts and the post-gathering impact often devastates the locals, their activities and the environment.

The current ban on large gatherings became a necessity for social distancing but is also a boon in disguise. Can this ban or restriction be continued as a norm? One has to introspect and rethink the relevance of any and all types of large gatherings in today’s age and times.

If some countries and companies socially distance China, India and its Tier 2-3 cities, smaller towns and rural areas will definitely be big beneficiaries of industrialisation. However, if we do not have an integrated road map of the way forward, post Covid-19, such opportunities will further congest the already concentrated areas and aggravate the problem to lay a foundation for the next pandemic. We must take advantage of the current unity of purpose and resolve to think and execute humanely for our own wider interests.

(The author has over 30 years of experience with Indian and Japanese manufacturing startups, is an alumnus of IIT Kanpur and IIT Bombay, and is currently Associate Professor and Chair of Entrepreneurship at FLAME University, Pune)


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