Just as we were striding confidently towards the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, Covid-19 struck. But a crisis is also an ‘opportunity to do things you thought could not be done before’. The post-crisis recovery will require the Government, private sector, civil society and ordinary citizens to come together and chart a new path. We call this a ‘whole-of-society’ response using national platforms to reimagine growth.
India has already shown courage and innovation in handling the health crisis. The national lockdown required the cooperation of citizens, women’s self-help-groups, small and medium businesses, large private sector players, supply chain operators, and others. In the relief phase, the sacrifice of frontline workers and social organisers has been exemplary. In towns and villages, residents came together to support the old and the vulnerable, demonstrating India’s social strength. A similar ethos has driven previous national efforts like Swachh Bharat, enabled by the government but powered by society.
However, the dark clouds of economic slowdown and unemployment swirling ahead require a new level of national cooperation. Unlike the 2008 economic crisis which percolated from the sub-prime crisis in the U.S. and barely touched India, this one rises from within, with locked populations and broken supply chains. The virus has hit the top 30 metros and tier-1 districts the most. However, with movement restricted country-wide, its economic fallout will be seen across 700 smaller districts where 90% of India resides. COVID-19 penetration has been exactly the inverse, with the top 30 districts on average recording 10 times more cases than the rest. As we start unlocking the nation, we should unlock our economic minds to this geographic reality.
As India unlocks itself, digital stacks can enable a whole-of-society response to national tasks with reach and precision. Today, Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile (JAM), GSTN data, voter records, healthcare database, GIS technology and other digital techniques are being used to provide relief. Rebuilding requires the use of smart tools for economic recovery, which involves platform approaches to break silos and encourage citizen participation and employment. In the near future, stock market gyrations will have little bearing on recovery; only two numbers matter: the number of COVID-19 cases and employment.
Rebuilding must take a new path. As organisations create their ‘day-after’ strategy, they should consider three key trends. Firstly, the Indian consumer base will anchor economic recovery; secondly, economic activity will be decentralised; and finally, links to national platforms will be key to recovery. A rebuilding effort requires moving beyond labels that describe leaders or activities as ‘public sector’ or ‘private sector’. For example, executing a government stimulus programme requires deep understanding of private industries. Private players will have to understand how their dealer base and MSME base will receive the government stimulus, and how migration will influence a labour shortage. Industry boundaries will also get blurred – for example, the health industry may want to learn distribution of PPE from the FMCG industry.
The economy will take a body blow in 2020. Debates rage on the kind of recovery we will see – U, V, W or L. In our view, this shape is not preordained. National effort can bring about a V-shaped recovery, a sign of national victory. This is best done by focusing on our large emerging middle class as global supply chains get repaired, empowering citizens to become both consumers and producers for growth and employment. The Government will have to support industries like travel and tourism directly. Others will require shock therapy to restart, while smaller businesses and segments will need specific stimuli.
For long, we have ignored our smaller towns and districts economically; in our view, we have to put them back in focus. The private sector will need to design products and services for our 800-million strong emerging middle, as tier 1 markets will remain overcompeted. The government must move to ‘Ease of Business 2.0’, facilitating economic activity in the hinterland, for true consumer power to re-emerge from here. The recent experience of work from home will facilitate decentralisation. The lockdown has proven that business activity can continue from Bhubaneswar or Bhopal without the hassles of a metro.
The response to COVID-19 over the past months has already demonstrated that all segments of society are brimming with energy. A national revival must use platforms to channelise this energy by connecting these segments and institutions to generate work and revive the economy. This whole-of-society approach will enable all segments and sectors to contribute to and benefit from the rebuilding effort. It will move the definition of citizenship from ‘voting’ to ‘building’ as we near the 75th anniversary of our independence. By working together, we can ensure future generations remember this moment as one when collective action turned a crisis into an opportunity.
Views are personal.
Deepankar Sanwalka is partner and leader Advisory, PwC India and Shashank Tripathi is partner and lead government strategy & transformation, PwC India.