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Being COVID Sanguine: Some Silver Linings to the Pandemic

Given the devastating effects the COVID 19 pandemic has had on the world in general and India in particular, you’re probably wondering about the title of this blog. Don’t get me wrong- I am in no way trying to diminish the massive damage to life, livelihoods and health that the pandemic has brought upon millions of people in India and around the world. Had I seen a similar title even 4 months ago, I too would probably have experienced thoughts similar to what you felt. 

So what has changed in a matter of a few weeks? There has been a major drop in the number of cases around the country; instances of serious infections requiring ICU care have also declined. The vaccination drive is going from strength to strength, with as many as 10 million people being vaccinated across India on a single day.

But the biggest change is in my own perspective. Earlier, I always saw only the negative and the bleak, but now I am beginning to see some positives. And that’s what prompted me to write this piece. Here are five specific areas in which I see positives.

Our people exhibited phenomenal resolve and resilience

The second wave (March-June 2021) was especially brutal on India. Our healthcare infrastructure was stretched beyond breaking point. Oxygen was in short supply, as were critical drugs. Medical experts were trying to firm up treatment protocols. Although vaccinations had begun for some people, the Cowin portal was glitchy and even vaccine supply chains were far from streamlined.

But we saw hundreds of self-help groups come up on platforms like Whatsapp and Telegram. Volunteers would man them 24×7 to ensure that across India, patients and their families got access to critical resources including food, oxygen cylinders and medicines. These supplemented (and often replaced) government measures. Technology was used to the fullest, to ensure that people knew where vaccine doses were available, so they could quickly register.

The pandemic has powered a surge of innovations

Almost every day, there were/are media reports around some innovative activity in India. Some emanate from the government sector: for example, in many cities, stadia and large school buildings were converted into makeshift hospitals or Covid Care Centres.

There are many examples of innovation emerging from private enterprise too. For example, given the large quantities of PPE waste being generated, someone came up with a way to convert used PPE kits (which would otherwise have to be incinerated or buried safely in landfills) into briquettes that can be used for constructing low-cost housing.

Around the country, different teams developed prototypes of low-cost oxygenators and ventilators. This will be a source of great benefit to the country because it reduces dependence on imports. And as we have seen, geopolitical triggers or maritime issues (like the ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal) can wreak havoc with global supplies.

Recently, I read about a woman-led team in Hyderabad inventing a fabric that has anti-virus and anti-bacterial properties. Imagine the wide range of applications at home, in workplaces and public spaces for such a versatile invention.

 

Public-Private Partnership (PPP) redefined

The notion of Public-Private Partnerships too has changed in the last 18 months or so. Whether this is a direct result of the pandemic or more the outcome of policy changes is perhaps hard to separate. But India as a nation is seeing much higher levels of collaboration between government laboratories and infrastructure and the private sector. DRDO collaborating with start-ups for developing drones that can be used for vaccine delivery is one example. Another is ISRO encouraging startups and even students to design satellites. A third is ICMR collaborating with Bharat Biotec in the development of Covaxin, India’s first indigenous Covid vaccine.

Passions are changing into professions, creating employment opportunities

On the one hand, the pandemic has killed many livelihoods. But with many people looking at new, home-based business ventures- and using digital channels to market themselves and deliver their products (and in some cases, services too), one can hope that they will be able to scale and over time, some job losses can be offset. Examples include food delivery, baking, making pickles etc.  Of course, India still needs contact-based industries, such as construction and manufacturing, to pick up and get back on track.

Attempts to harness the creative talent of our youth

This may not be directly linked to the pandemic, but I believe that greater participation will result because of the restrictions imposed by it. The government is looking for innovative ideas from our youth. The Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) and The All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) recently announced Manthan 21, a “hackathon” aimed at getting our country’s youth to come up with innovative solutions to address the challenges faced by our intelligence and security agencies. Specific areas have been identified. (more details are available here: https://manthan.mic.gov.in/about-intellithon.php).

 

Experts say that the world around us has changed for ever, and there’s a “new normal” in the wake of the pandemic. There is no doubt about that. But hybrid working models or other changes visible in the organized sector (especially in larger firms and companies) are not the only changes to our world resulting from the pandemic. The impact of the less visible changes described above too will be felt by India and the world in the years ahead.

 

The second wave (March-June 2021) was especially brutal on India. But we saw hundreds of self-help groups come up on platforms like Whatsapp and Telegram. Volunteers would man them 24×7 to ensure that across India, patients and their families got access to critical resources including food, oxygen cylinders and medicines. 

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India Needs New Regulations - But Simplification of Compliance is Just as Critical

In earlier posts, I have touched upon the need for Indian laws to be updated to better reflect the current environment and foreseeable changes to it brought about by various forces, primarily technology-led innovation. This is not just because of the need to plug legal loopholes that are exploited to the nation’s detriment but also with the objectives of streamlining compliance and better enforcement.

 

Recently, the union government did exactly this when it announced a new set of rules to govern the operations of drones in India. A new draft of the Drone Rules, 2021, now out for public consultation, will, when approved and notified, replace the UAS Rules, 2021, which were announced in March 2021. The fact that the government has come out with a new set of rules within 4 months of issuing the earlier version is a welcome sign of change, as it signals recognition of a rapidly-changing environment as well as the importance of timely and appropriate responses.

Changes are aimed at simplification and less regulatory control

The new rules are remarkable for other reasons as well. At about 15 pages in length, the new rules are only a tenth of the earlier rules. The changes are not limited to the form; there are substantive changes too. The new rules seek to do away with a large number of approvals (e.g., Unique Authorization Number, Unique Prototype Identification Number etc.).  Licensing for micro drones for non-commercial use has been done away with. Recognizing the immense potential for drones to revolutionize our society and economy, the government proposes to develop “drone corridors” for cargo delivery. Prior authorization of drone-related R&D organizations is being removed. A drone promotion council is to be set up, in order to create a business-friendly regulatory regime that spurs innovation and use of drones. All this augurs well for the development of a robust drone ecosystem in India.

Implementing the “spirit” of underlying regulations is vital

The change to the drone rules is a welcome step- just as the consolidation of 29 of the country’s labour laws into four Codes during 2019 and 2020 was. But rationalization becomes futile if there is no element of reform- e.g., doing away with requirements that have outlived their utility or need significant changes to remain relevant in the current environment? There were many expectations around the Labour Codes, but in the months that followed, it is fair to say that there was also much disillusionment amongst industry stakeholders because sticky issues, such as the distinction between “employees” and “workers”, payment of overtime, role of facilitator-cum-inspector etc., remained.

Simplifying compliance is necessary to improve “ease of doing business” further

The World Bank’s 2020 “ease of doing business” report ranks India 63rd; we were ranked 130 in 2016. The 2020 report considered three areas: business regulatory reforms (starting a business, paying taxes, resolving insolvency etc.); contracting with the government, and employing workers. 

But there are miles to go before we sleep. To ensure that India’s entrepreneurial energies and creative intelligence are directed to areas that will be critical in the years to come- e.g., space, AI, robotics, electric vehicles, clean energy etc. all need new regulations or revamp of existing legislations and rules. But this alone will not suffice. Implementing the spirit, and not just the letter of the law and rules and the simplification of regulatory compliance are important angles that government must pay attention to. These are going to be key determinants in improving our “ease of doing business”.

 

Technology is a necessary enabler but it is not sufficient

All regulatory filings- whether for approvals or compliance- should ideally be enabled in digital format. Digital dashboards in the government and other regulatory bodies should facilitate real-time monitoring. Only exceptions or violations should need further actions. To be sure, the government has initiated some steps in this direction- e,g., “faceless” interactions between business and the Income Tax authorities with the intention to reduce human interventions and thus, the possibility of corruption. But if the underlying income tax portal itself is not working properly, as was widely reported soon after it was launched, the desired outcomes will not be achieved.

Moreover, it is not just about having the right technology platforms in place. It is equally critical to bring about a mindset change in the administrative machinery that helps political leadership formulate policy and thereafter, enable implementation and performance monitoring.

Given India’s large domestic market and attractiveness as a base for exports, we as a nation stand on the threshold of a phase of significant economic growth. Many Indian entrepreneurs are establishing businesses overseas; this means that the benefits of jobs, tax revenues and IPR creation all move to other jurisdictions. The longer anachronistic and irrelevant laws remain on our books, and the harder regulatory compliance remains, the more we stand to lose. In a world where global investment flows, trade and supply chains are facing significant change under the influence of numerous forces, it would truly be unfortunate if India loses out largely because of continued difficulties in regulatory compliance.

Image Credits: Photo by Medienstürmer on Unsplash

The longer anachronistic and irrelevant laws remain on our books, and the harder regulatory compliance remains, the more we stand to lose. In a world where global investment flows, trade and supply chains are facing significant change under the influence of numerous forces, it would truly be unfortunate if India loses out largely because of continued difficulties in regulatory compliance.

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