R Srinivasan

Covid-19 and the crisis of planning

R Srinivasan | Updated on April 15, 2020 Published on April 15, 2020

Inclusive development Any future plan, be it industrial or civic, must keep the needs of labourers in mind   -  PTI

Whether it’s countries or corporations, everyone must go back to the drawing board

In Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the eponymous lead character practices what he calls ‘Zen detection’ — which is basically doing nothing at all. That’s because Gently firmly believes in the principle of ‘the fundamental interconnectedness of everything.’ So, if you sit back and do absolutely nothing, the universe will eventually get you to where you should be.

The Covid-19 pandemic ravaging the world has brought home the truth of the theory of fundamental interconnectedness of everything. From governments to corporates to individuals, worldwide lockdowns, and the disruptions they have caused in their wake, have made them realise how interconnected their activities really are — and how a disruption in one part of this complex chain can have unimaginable consequences elsewhere.

When plans fall short

But Gently’s response — of sitting back and doing nothing, and waiting for the universe to show the way — is not a luxury any of us can afford. If there is one thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught the world, it is that everyone needs to plan — not just for the unexpected, but the unimaginable. Governments need a plan. Companies need a plan. Above all, even individuals need a plan, to deal with a situation when the world as you know it stops working the way you expect it to.

The trouble is, most plans — even contingency plans, disaster management plans and the like — are essentially based on certain ceteris paribus assumptions. So companies — and countries — do have plans to deal with, say, a natural disaster. But that is based on the assumption that at least parts of the economic chains will keep working. So a fire or flood or earthquake may disrupt activity over a very large area, but the back-up plans assume that non-affected areas will continue with business as usual.

War imposes a different kind of constraint. But wars are fought against identifiable enemies. Conflict may cause disruptions in supply chains, and may cause products and raw material to be diverted to more important activities vital to defence — but the assumption is that if our farms and factories can be protected, work can continue.

But how do you tackle an invisible enemy, one that is present everywhere, impacts all — rich, poor, mighty, weak — alike and most critically, brings all human productive activity to a near standstill everywhere in the globe at the same time.

The government has been criticised for going into lockdown without a plan, and worse, without giving sufficient notice to others so that they at least could plan. Today, more than three weeks into a lockdown, there is still little evidence of a coherent plan, though finally, some attempts are being made to get at least critical parts of the economy moving. But to give them credit, they have at least managed to stave off widespread deprivation and hunger, have managed to build up some healthcare and quarantine capacity and have managed to get a grip on at least identifying and controlling hotspots — while keeping electricity grids humming, water flowing and garbage and sewage disposed off in our crowded cities.

But then, private players don’t have much of a plan either. True, millions of knowledge workers have been seamlessly moved into work from home — our IT sector has managed this quite spectacularly without any major disruptions — but then, what kind of a plan can you have for your clients simply vanishing?

Food is an essential item and food processing industries are exempted from lockdown restrictions; but even if they have managed to overcome the shortage of labour and supply chain restrictions, the lack of packaging material — which is not on the essentials list — may soon bring lines to a halt. Online retailers have the technology to manage just-in-time inventory across millions of stock-keeping units and track individual shipments by the minute to millions of individual customers, but can do nothing if their last-mile delivery agents simply upped sticks and left for home when the lockdown was announced.

A new ‘normal’

When life returns after Covid-19 to some semblance of normalcy, it is clear that from governments to individuals, everyone has to go back to the drawing board to plan for the new normal. The old assumptions are no longer valid, the old ‘normal’ is no longer applicable.

This change has to start right at the top, with the Union government. As the crisis and its response have clearly demonstrated, no matter what plans are drawn up at the Central level, at the end of the day, the battle is being fought in the field by State governments and municipal administrations. Any future plan can no longer assume a lofty Centre directing national schemes and doling out money and patronage, with civic and village administrations fighting for whatever crumbs are left. Any future plan — whether for development or for fighting a future pandemic — must factor in the new frontline.

Old notions of industrial development are out of the window. As the still unfolding migrant labour crisis has shown, you cannot simply develop an industrial estate, build roads, give power and water connections and expect industrial activity to follow. Any future industrial estate must plan — and build — housing, healthcare, shopping and education facilities for the labour which will work there, and not simply leave it to the vagaries of free market capitalism.

In fact, when India started industrialising, this was very much the model followed. Chawls were built to house mill workers. Steel plants and factories sprang up in the middle of the jungle along with entire, ready-built townships to accommodate all, from the chairman to the lowliest labourer.

Ditto for urban planning. Private enterprises building housing for the rich is no longer enough — affordable housing for the vast under-structure of support staff which enable the lives of those who live in such agglomerations — has also to be factored in. Individuals will have to plan whether they will be able to do their work if public transport is disrupted for lengths of time — which will drive livelihood and settlement choices.

Everybody will have to go back to the drawing board.

Published on April 15, 2020

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