For Punit Renjen, the global chief executive officer of Deloitte, the $50 billion professional services organisation, Covid-19 has meant going back to lessons learnt during his days growing up in Rohtak, a small town in Haryana. The pandemic, he says, has presented India an opportunity to grow sustainably, something that is inherent in the way we take care of ourselves, our community and our environment. He says profit cannot be the sole objective of businesses, which need to worry about all stakeholders, including clients and communities where they live and work. Interview by Rajeev Dubey, Joe C. Mathew and Ashutosh Kumar.
COVID-19 & HEALTHCARE
Has the pandemic made global companies change the way they conduct business?
The wave is changing course. Increasingly, companies, private and public, are looking at a broader set of matrix and stakeholders. When I was studying business, what prevailed was the Milton Friedman (Nobel Prize winning economist from University of Chicago) mindset that the role of business is business. Create extraordinary profits and everything else will take care of itself. That is changing. Increasingly, business leaders need to worry about stakeholders such as clients and people and communities where they live and work. Take Deloitte. Out of 3,50,000 individuals who work with us, 86% are millennials or belong to GenZ. Their key question to me is, what do you do for communities? Deloitte will hire 70,000 professionals this year from best universities in the world, including India. It is important for me to see that we are creating an impact for clients, people and communities where we live and work. We stepped up, we contributed to India, to South Africa, to US, to Europe (during Covid-19), as it was the right thing to do.
What are the fundamental changes Covid-19 will bring in businesses?
One big change is movement towards global standards and expectations. Take climate change. Disclosures about ESG (environmental, social and governance) standards are moving towards a more consistent set of measurements. Same is happening on taxation regulations. Increase in digitalisation has impacted the way we live and operate. We are never going back to pre-Covid days. Other changes include companies relooking at supply chains, mitigating risk and building redundancy. These changes are going to persist.
What are the lessons for countries and businesses from Covid-19?
Covid doesn’t distinguish between India, US and Europe. It infects everybody. The response required is global. It’s disappointing that we haven’t seen a coordinated global response. The second is underinvestment in primary healthcare. It is evident in India. It is evident in U.S. too. The third lesson is that globalisation is here to stay.
Has the world learned to live with future pandemics?
I hope people learn a lot of lessons from this pandemic. The first is that viruses don’t distinguish between Indians and Americans and Europeans. So, they require a global response. Nobody is safe till everybody is safe. The second is that we need to invest in primary healthcare. The third is that we have many countries, many communities, but for many things, we are a global community. It’s not just about viruses, but climate too, which I believe is the next big issue that our generation must address. If we don’t address it now, we will not have an opportunity for another 20-30 years. To address climate change, we need a global response. I don’t think we can eradicate this virus. I hope this virus becomes endemic like flu. We need to learn to live with it.
What is the next frontier in corporate governance?
I will give you Deloitte’s example. We have very clear separation between management and governance. We have separate and independent board members at the member firm level. It is also important to realise that issues like climate, looking beyond profits and taking care of the entire set of stakeholders, regulators, clients, people, communities, that will be an important aspect of corporate governance going forward. That’s why you have seen a push towards climate and inclusion, though I hope to see that around all ESG matrix. The third is transparency of information. The fourth is ensuring that consistent information is shared so that investors and stakeholders can make appropriate comparisons. I think these corporate governance elements are here to stay.
What is your advice to clients on data protection and sharing?
Covid-19 has brought rapid digitisation. There has been more digitisation in last two years than in ten years prior to that. Digitisation will not only enable conduct of business. It will also change the way we live, work and consume. But you need protocols at individual level, at corporate level, at government level, not only for redressal and mitigation but also from the standpoint of protecting what needs to be protected.
When it comes to rules and regulations, there will be elements that will be unique to a country given its goals and aspirations, but at a macro level, there needs to be a level of consistency, whether it is on taxation or climate or disclosure. The same applies to data. We are working with companies, clients and governments to come up with protocols.
THE MACRO VIEW
How credible will be India’s growth story, especially after Covid-19?
This is India’s century. Covid-19 has impacted the entire world. It has fundamentally changed the way we live and do business. But India’s fundamentals are strong enough to weather the storm. India will probably be the fastest-growing large economy in FY2023. It’s not just me. Entities like International Monetary Fund and others have also said this. Among all the changes brought by the pandemic, (de-risking of) supply chains is an opportunity for India. Covid-19 has also brought to fore the sustainability factor. India has a tremendous opportunity to grow in a more inclusive and equitable way by focusing on sustainability that is inherent in our culture, in the way we take care of our ourselves, our community, and our environment. If we go back to our culture, evolved over centuries, it is going to be India’s century.
How attractive is India as an investment destination?
We did a survey after the second wave of Covid-19 and found that India is one of the most attractive destinations for foreign direct investment (FDI). But there is a gap, particularly in Asian countries like Singapore and Japan, where there is a mis-perception that it is difficult to do business in India. They don’t fully understand and appreciate the steps government has taken to improve the way business is conducted.
The takeaway from the survey was that India remains one of the premier FDI destinations for western and leading Asian economies but there is a gap between what is happening on the ground and people’s perception that needs to be addressed.
GETTING INDIA GOING
You talked about de-risking supply chains. How much of it is possible, as India is cautious about trade deals?
Covid-19 has brought forth the notion for many companies that supply chain risks have to be mitigated. India has a tremendous opportunity, worth $1 trillion, in relocation of supply chains. But it’s not a given. We have to make it attractive for businesses to relocate to India. Many of our clients are looking at that, so opportunity is there. And our technology sector has shown that given the demographics, given the capability, we can lead in sectors. Pharmaceuticals are another example, so are textiles, of the fact manufacturing and supply chains can be located in India. We need to ensure ease of doing business and create an environment where companies can do business as easily as possible. We need to avoid regressing to protectionist measures. We have to attract businesses. I am doing that as somebody with connections to India. I say that this is India’s century to all the clients that I have and talk about how there are fundamental advantages in relocating in India. That is being done, but it needs to be done on a broader scale.
What was your role in the Deloitte Playbook on Covid-19 home care?
I read a newspaper report about the prime minister holding a review of the Covid-19 situation in India. He rightly stated the need to get vaccination going on a war-footing, which is absolutely the right thing to do. Then, we need to make sure that precautions that work, social distancing, mask, etc, remain in place. The third thing he stressed was the need to have an appropriate system of home care. When the delta wave hit India, we responded in two ways. One, we tackled the oxygen situation. We as group of leaders (of US firms) got oxygen concentrators and ventilators. The second area where Deloitte intervened was reducing hospital rush. I give credit to my 81-year-old mother, who communicated with her doctor through WhatsApp, for giving me the idea to do it in a more expansive way. That is how we piloted a programme in Haryana, in Karnal, involving a five-step approach using digital technology to get healthcare to homes and ‘hard to reach’ communities. We leveraged what was unique to India — AASHA and Anganwadi workers — and set up three-tier medical infrastructure. The result was extraordinary. The Karnal chief medical officer said death rate dipped 50%. Over 97% patients, including my mother, were treated at home. We then worked with Niti Aayog to incorporate best practices from many districts that had taken wonderful initiatives. We took these to other countries, South Africa in particular, but also South East Asia and Europe. Now, with this new wave, we have come out with a playbook or process that incorporates lessons from South Africa and South East Asia. We are using a five-tier approach to provide home care in all districts. India has about 600 districts. About 150 of them are most backward with decades of under-investment in primary healthcare. Our approach to Covid-19 also allows you to take primary healthcare to underserved communities as tele-health is a key part of it. Another key part is leveraging AASHA and anganwadi workers. One of the things we did in Haryana was to come up with a health pack that included an oxymeter, a thermometer, basic medicines, masks and sanitisers that could be supplied quickly to districts, to rural communities. This is a 360-degree approach, India’s gift to the world. We learned in India, gave it to South Africa and others, and now it’s come back to India.
Our government took a contrarian call by not going for demand stimulus after Covid-19 broke out. Did it work?
I am not an expert on India but results speak for themselves. Gross domestic product growth of 8-9% is world-leading. So, fundamentals are strong. It is not easy to achieve such numbers. These are akin to what China achieved in 1980s and 1990s. In India, it’s harder, as we are a democratic society. It is a positive thing in the long term but it does lead to slower decision-making as you have to engage multiple stakeholders in the governamce process.
What India is achieving, despite Covid, is remarkable.
How can government push initiatives such as last-mile healthcare?
You need to invest in infrastructure. A large number of Indians have some access to smart phones. Somebody in a village with some education can help with oxygen reading. Anganwadi and AASHA workers can help with temperature level. Doctors in a tele-health facility can provide basic healthcare using mobile technology. Is that the answer for all our requirements? No. It is step one, a cost-effective way to provide primary healthcare. There are other steps that are needed to get hospitals and other medical capability to aspirational districts.
Is government listening?
We have been interacting with Niti Aayog, with various state governments, we are providing this pro bono. I am going to speak (about this) and hopefully get more engagement.
(This edited Q&A has been condensed for space and clarity.)
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