R Srinivasan

Time to move beyond statements

R Srinivasan | Updated on April 15, 2021

A worried India Inc Migrant workers returning home will deal a crippling blow to businesses   -  Emmanual Yogini

From helping vaccine makers raise funds to taking over the vaccination drive for its workforce, there’s a lot India Inc can do

Here’s a quick quiz question: In what way has the government’s response to the second wave of the Covid pandemic been meaningfully different from its response to the crisis of surging infections and soaring deaths that happened the first time around?

The answer, as we all know, is nothing. The sequence of events has followed exactly the same depressing pattern as the first wave’s. A brief period of seeming success lulling everybody into complacence, quickly followed by acts of downright criminal negligence — allowing mass gatherings with zero safety protocols in “essential” activities like cricket matches and election rallies, followed by panicky and heavy handed orders converting hospitals into “full Covid” hospitals overnight as beds and ventilators ran out, never mind those already in these hospitals for non-Corona reasons (nobody is keeping a tally of the non-Covid dead anyway), followed by the usual SOP of shutting schools and colleges, cancelling or postponing exams and, when all else fails, imposing lockdowns again.

Lockdown worries

Oh, there is one thing the government is doing differently this time around — it is not calling the lockdowns as lockdowns — since that sets off mass panic — but is calling them “restrictions” instead. Nevertheless, everyone knows a lockdown when they see one and as a fresh round of stringent lockdowns rolls inexorably near, everybody is once again preparing for the worst. Migrant workers, who faced the brunt of the disruptions last year, have already sensed this and thousands are already camped at railway stations and bus stands trying to get back home before yet another disastrous clampdown descends on their heads.

India Inc knows this too. It has been quick to urge the government against going in for lockdowns since lockdowns, as we all know, really hurt business. In a statement, CII President Uday Kotak, who really has the pulse of India’s top business houses, first ticked the boxes with the government — “At this juncture, CII calls for quick action to be taken by the Government on ‘whatever it takes’ to ramp up production, supply and distribution of vaccines. Strict following and enforcement of safety and hygiene protocols by all sections of society is absolutely critical” — before getting down to business, emphasising that “lockdown is not a solution in the present times” and requested for “maintaining stringent Covid-related protocols for public places and workplaces.”

FICCI, the other big business body, has been making similar noises. While the official statement called for a “PLI-type scheme” (the production-linked incentive scheme rolled out for manufacturing in some key sectors) to ramp up vaccine manufacturing, it quickly got down to business by urging the government to widen the scope of vaccinations. “With the current strategy and vaccination rate, we would be missing vaccinating our super-spreaders of the age group 18-45 years, who also form the majority of our workforce needed for sustaining economic activities.”

Yes indeed. The demographic dividend means a young workforce, and without vaccinations, they stand at high risk of infection — and spreading the infection. FICCI was also as worried about the “restrictions” (remember, the ‘L’ word is out!) as CII. Moneycontrol.com quoted FICCI President Uday Shankar as saying that the new restrictions imposed in “industrially important” States were “concerning”. “Restrictions imposed by States will hurt (businesses),” Shankar is said to have stated, adding that “the government's complacency” was the reason behind surging cases.

The trouble is, that apart from making such statements and calling for action on the part of everyone else (the government, the public et al) but themselves, and making well-publicised donations to the PM-CARES fund, India Inc has not meaningfully contributed in any way to the fight against Covid. That needs to change. After all, as India Inc has made amply clear, businesses pay a price for the government’s failure to mount a coherent strategy to tackle the Covid pandemic. Why not then, take a few pre-emptive measures — and spend some real money — to save much more in the long run?

For starters, why not help the vaccine manufacturing companies overcome their immediate problem — lack of adequate funds to ramp up capacity and poor cashflows, caused by government imposing a price cap on vaccines and also issuing purchase orders in dribs and drabs, which is also preventing a scale-up.

It could do this by say helping vaccine makers like Bharat Biotech and Serum Institute to raise low cost funds by subscribing to sub-PLR bonds issued by these companies, with the interest differential between the coupon and the market rate being their “contribution” to the Covid fight. The government can even help this by allowing all such purchases as permissible CSR expense!

India Inc can also use its considerable clout with the government to allow it to take over the vaccination drive, at least where it concerns itself. It can pre-order (thereby sorting the cashflow issue for vaccine makers to an extent) and buy vaccines to cover its workforce, immediate vendor and sales chains and their dependents (there’s no point inoculating an employee if his family continues to be at risk). This can take a lot of stress off the government’s vaccine infrastructure, allowing it to concentrate on the informal and rural sector workers who can only turn to the government for succour.

It can also contribute meaningfully with money, material and equipment. All those well publicised efforts to build cheap ventilators and convert manufacturing lines into making hospital equipment were clearly dumped after the initial panic subsided, since every State is reporting shortage of life-support equipment like ventilators, critical consumables like oxygen as well as other medicines (the shortage of the anti-viral drug Remdesivir springs to mind).

Here again, businesses can help by specifically picking target areas and companies in the healthcare spectrum for co-operation and collaboration. Will it cost money? Of course, and lots of it. But these expenses should be seen as insurance expenses — necessary outgoes against a greater calamity like a catastrophic closure of business activity.

There is no point issuing statements and expecting others to do the work of protecting you. Whether as individuals or businesses, the biggest learning from the Covid pandemic has been that the virus, like truth, involves us all. The fight against the virus will have to involve us all too — including India Inc.

The writer is former Editor, BusinessLine

Published on April 14, 2021

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