Month: April 2020

Gated globalisation and fragmented supply chains

The hyper-globalisation processes that built China’s industrial might also caused enormous political churn.

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For decades, the West, led by US strategic thinking, bet that full-on engagement with Beijing would alter the opaque nature of Chinese politics, making it more liberal and open. The onset of the Covid19 pandemic should ensure a quick burial to this belief. The free and open liberal world order has run into the great political wall of China with deleterious consequences. Not only did the intense engagement with China fail to alter its politics, but many liberal democracies have also adopted Chinese-style industrial planning policies. The irony of today’s geopolitical moment is that Western taxpayers underwrote China’s bid for global influence. Successive US administrations, egged on by Big Business and Big Finance, played a crucial role in bringing China into the global community, culminating in Bill Clinton’s decision to welcome China into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) system.

Building Its Appetite

The subsequent outsourcing of manufacturing and industrial capabilities from the West to China allowed Beijing to ‘bide its time’ as it strategically built its influence through control over global supply chains. Because of the enormous financial returns accruing from labour arbitrage, governments turned a blind eye, as China used this economic dependence to flex its political muscle, first in Asia and now, through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), into the very heart of the European Union (EU).

The hyper-globalisation processes that were steadily building up China’s industrial might were simultaneously causing enormous social and political churn among the Western working and middle classes. Shorn of the decent wages afforded by manufacturing jobs — and increasingly alienated from the financial and technology elite — those left behind turned against globalisation.

The hyper-globalisation processes that were steadily building up China’s industrial might were simultaneously causing enormous social and political churn among the Western working and middle classes

The current global pause induced by Covid19 offers us a moment to reflect on what was, and to examine the contours of, what may well be Pax Sinica. Two large projects define China’s recent emergence. The first, reminiscent of Pax Britannia and Pax Americana, is the much-discussed BRI. China’s outward expansion through the construction of new supply chains and trade routes has been designed to serve its economic interests by capturing the flow of raw materials from Asia and Africa and, thereafter, supplying finished products to the world. And just as the British packaged their imperial design as a show of benevolence — think of the argument that the railways in India were built to benefit Indians — so, too, is China selling its political proposition as a new pathway for global growth, solidarity and development.

The second aspect of its expansion relates to technology, and its concerted effort to control and leverage the global data economy for itself. By globalising its technological prowess — from building next-generation communications infrastructure and digital platforms to offering surveillance tools to authoritarian governments — Beijing is well-positioned to script future administrations and regimes around development, finance, and even war and conflict. And it does this even as it isolates its own people from external flows of information and technology. Some argue that Pax Americana was no different. Like Beijing, the US leveraged its pole position in the global economy, its military and industrial strengths, and its technological supremacy to build a world order that responded to its interests. There is, however, no equivalence between the two. US society was largely open —individuals, communities and nations from around the world could engage, convince or petition its institutions; write in its media; and, often, participate in its politics. Its hegemony was constrained by a democratic society and conditioned by its electoral cycles.

US society was largely open —individuals, communities and nations from around the world could engage, convince or petition its institutions; write in its media; and, often, participate in its politics. Its hegemony was constrained by a democratic society and conditioned by its electoral cycles

Recipe’s Old, Mistrust’s New

It was these characteristics that encouraged nations to place some degree of faith in multilateral institutions, which were largely underwritten by the US. It also encouraged countries to participate in the free flow of goods, finance and labour; to move towards open borders, markets and societies; and, indeed, to embrace USled globalisation at the turn of the last century.

Few will be able to navigate the dark labyrinth of Chinese politics, much less claim to influence its communist party. It is worth recalling that at the peak of its might, the US withdrew from Vietnam because intense media scrutiny dramatically undermined public support for the war at home. Will images of damage to the livelihood and ecology along the Mekong convince the Communist Party of China (CPC) to abandon its damming projects upstream? Will the thousands of deaths caused by Covid-19 within China make it more transparent?

Therefore, the next globalisation era, increasingly underwritten by Beijing, may well be less free and less open than before. To balance China’s global ambitions, nations may opt to trade with geographies and nations where political trust exists, thereby fragmenting supply chains. Governments will ‘gate-keep’ flows of goods, services, finance and labour when national strategic interests are at stake. Indeed, we should be ready for a new phase of ‘gated globalisation’. Even as the recovery and progress of the post-Covid-19 world will be worse for it.


This commentary originally appeared in The Economic Times.

Order at the gates: globalisation, techphobia and the world order

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The publication of this commentary marks the beginning of online collaboration between Valdai Club, Russia as part of its Think Tank project and the Observer Research Foundation, India. This is the first in a series of planned exchanges between the two organizations on bilateral and global matters. Stay tuned for more commentaries, videos and webinars in the days ahead.


Nearly three decades ago, Francis Fukuyama argued that the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union and the universalisation of liberalism would mark an end to the historical struggle over ideology and political models. His thesis was, by his own recent admission, overly optimistic. The resurgence of strong identities and nationalist leaders has given rise to the politics of resentment and tribalism. Coupled with new shifts in the global balance of power and disruptive technological and industrial processes, it’s clear that a new world is upon us. The onset of the novel coronavirus at the turn of this decade has accelerated many of the processes that were a compelling change and has compressed timelines for governments, businesses, and communities to make crucial decisions about the future.

Perhaps the most significant of these shifts is the unmistakeable demise of Pax-Americana. The COVID19 outbreak is the first global challenge that has witnessed the complete absence of American leadership. It has also thrown into sharp relief the social and governance vulnerabilities of the West more broadly. Even the EU has struggled to equitably distribute resources between its member states amidst this pandemic with many now openly expressing their reliance on China — a result of expediency and naivety. The divisions — between North and South Europe over economics, and Western and Eastern Europe over values — seems likely to widen. The weakened transatlantic core of the international liberal order is likely to slip further in relevance in the post-COVID world.

Even so, it is not immediately obvious that any new leadership will take charge in the future. China, which by most estimates is a leading contender, has drawn the ire of the international community for several interrelated reasons, beginning with its missteps in containing the virus. Despite efforts to launder its own image through the WHO and the provision of public health goods to various regions, its efforts to sow discord among EU member states and its muscularity in dealing with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea littorals is not winning it any friends. The documented racism towards its African diaspora has added to the list of nations and communities that are re-evaluating their dependence and relationship with the middle kingdom.

Most nations are struggling to adjust to the fast changing and evolving balance of power equations between China and the western hemisphere. East Asian democracies, which have arguably responded most effectively to the outbreak, have watched these goings on with anxiety. It is clear that they will continue to play one against the other and carve for themselves room to manoeuvre. Russia, which was amongst the first to limit travel to and from China, is now being threatened by an outbreak in its own cities. It will nonetheless continue to bolster Beijing’s agenda as long as it undermines what Moscow has always believed to be, a fundamentally undemocratic world order managed under US hegemony. It would be interesting to see how Russia — under its presidency — steers the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to respond to the series of disruptions that the world is grappling with.

Russia, which was amongst the first to limit travel to and from China, is now being threatened by an outbreak in its own cities. It will nonetheless continue to bolster Beijing’s agenda as long as it undermines what Moscow has always believed to be, a fundamentally undemocratic world order managed under US hegemony

These interrelated disruptions in various geographies also dovetail into another broader trend: The return of the strong state and the normalisation of nationalist leadership. The coronavirus outbreak will act as a catalyst for this process. Some governments will use emergency and national security powers to consolidate power, as Hungary’s Orban already has. Others may use this as an excuse to blame and undermine international institutions — the preferred bogeyman of the Trump Administration. And many will enjoy the popular support of their citizens as they do so.

The most obvious impact of these developments will be the end of globalization as we know it. Most states will aggressively move to reduce interdependence, especially with those regions where political trust is limited. Japan’s efforts to incentivise its industry to diversify supply chains away from China through a stimulus package is indicative of this. But the ripple effect of these decisions will be felt across geographies — from the Gulf states, who are struggling to maintain supply of oil and manage flows of labour; to the ASEAN, which will see enormous disruptions to its trade flows that are deeply intertwined with both China and the US.

Indeed, a shift from a global village of relatively deeply integrated communities to a form of “gated globalisation” based on political and economic familiarity appears inevitable. The digitisation of the global economy will only accelerate this process and, perhaps, technology tools may well aid in this. As governments take advantage of digital and surveillance tools to combat the COVID19 outbreak — in societies both liberal and illiberal — a new ‘techphobia” will begin to affect foreign technology platforms and businesses. With nearly all social, economic, and strategic interactions moving to the virtual and digital realm, states will race to “encode” their political values and technology standards into the algorithms and infrastructure that will govern our societies. This will certainly be a competitive process which will give birth to a persistent “code war”.

With nearly all social, economic, and strategic interactions moving to the virtual and digital realm, states will race to “encode” their political values and technology standards into the algorithms and infrastructure that will govern our societies. This will certainly be a competitive process which will give birth to a persistent “code war”

Most worryingly, the international community’s ability and willingness to tackle collective challenges through global efforts will be irredeemably harmed. From the G20 to the UNSC, few international institutions have proved capable of responding to the pandemic with any level of speed or efficacy. Other institutions, like the WHO, have been subject to political capture and manipulation, adding to the waning global trust in these bodies. There is a dangerous fragility now to global co-operation — with uncertain implications for future challenges of this scale. What will this mean, for instance, when climate change begins to redraw coastal lines, cause food shortages, exacerbate inequality and strain national resources like never before? If the global response to the COVID19 outbreak is any indication, it will be every nation for itself, with many suffering horrible consequences as a result.

The coronavirus may have heralded the sudden onset of what Ian Bremmer calls a “G-Zero” world — one that is at once multipolar, leaderless, and likely besieged by renewed geopolitical conflict. It will be a world where the West has lost its “moral” authority and one that Beijing seeks to reshape through its muscular and expansive Belt and Road Initiative; one where the Kremlin will see an opportunity to expand its geopolitical ambitions in East Europe, West Asia and the Arctic; and one where nations without geopolitical or geoeconomics prowess will have to “pick sides”, either by constraint or compulsion.

The coronavirus has certainly shone a torch on a world disorder, one where most communities are likely to be plagued by poverty, conflict, unemployment and inequality, while great powers either look away or cast their material resources towards their own populations and self-interest

The coronavirus has certainly shone a torch on a world disorder, one where most communities are likely to be plagued by poverty, conflict, unemployment and inequality, while great powers either look away or cast their material resources towards their own populations and self-interest. Plurilateral efforts such as at the G20, G7, the BRICS, the OSCE and the SCO, among others, may become the only viable venues where key global actors coordinate and convene with purpose, and will be the arenas where actors who are unable to engage in meaningful conversations can speak through proxies. Will these become the norm builders for “gated globalization” or can we find it within us to repurpose, resuscitate and radically reform the UN as it turns 75 to help shape a common future?

Great Wall for China? Shaping China’s (mis)behaviour

Mitigating the adverse impact of Beijing’s crude ambition while simultaneously absorbing Chinese capital is a tough balancing act. Before making policy choices, India must rapidly improve its ability to monitor the full extent of economic exposure to China.

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To essentially prevent Chinese capital from taking over distressed businesses, India amended foreign direct investment (FDI) rules on Saturday to mandate government approval for all investments from ‘border’ countries. This is undoubtedly a critical crossroad in the India-China relationship. But it cannot be understood in isolation from other consequential bilateral shifts. These changes first began meaningfully in May 2017, when India objected to China’s efforts to reshape the Asian continent using the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

For decades, India and China were imagined by many as the future co-guarantors of the ‘Asian Century’. This changed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when China saw an opportunity to cement its leadership by establishing either a multi- or bipolar world while shaping a firmly unipolar Asia. India fully internalised this reality only after Beijing repeatedly ignored Delhi’s call to ‘multilateralise’ BRI, and mounted an offensive in Doklam, on the Bhutan-China frontier and perilously close to the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ corridor that links India’s Northeast to the rest of the country.

The coronavirus pandemic has finally compelled India to respond to its geo-economic realities. Still, much work remains. The current FDI restriction is a blunt instrument that is just as likely to harm Indian economic interests even as it seeks to protect them. China is the world’s second-largest economy, and as a March Brookings India paper, ‘Following the Money: China Inc’s Growing Stake in India-China Relations,’ by Anant Krishnan estimates, it has invested at least $8 billion in the Indian economy over the past six years.

If India is to make its way to a $10 trillion economy by the early 2030s, it may find it difficult to do so without a more robust trade and investment relationship with China. However, there are two aspects to China’s economic behaviour that India must not ignore. The first is Beijing’s efforts to ‘weaponise’ interdependence. Ever since China became central to global supply chains, it has used perverse industrial tools to climb the value chain, exacerbate trade imbalances and undermine global competition.

The second is China’s effort to shape the future of digital globalisation. It is exporting its propositions through the ‘Digital Silk Route’ and monopolising strategic industrial technology through the ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative.

Mitigating the adverse impact of Beijing’s crude ambition while simultaneously absorbing Chinese capital is a tough balancing act. Before making policy choices, India must rapidly improve its ability to monitor the full extent of economic exposure to China. As Krishnan’s study demonstrates, official figures do not shed light on Chinese investments through subsidiaries or other commercial instruments. It should not appear that India is lazily blocking Chinese investment largely because China has blocked market access to Indian companies in pharmaceuticals, dairy products and IT services.

India will have to identify the sectors that implicate its national and economic security. There is no granularity to the current FDI restrictions. Not all Chinese investments are national security threats. China’s investments in the automobiles industry, for instance, is less likely to be a security risk than those in India’s technology sector, whether it is infrastructure like 5G or in software and its applications.

Finally, New Delhi will have to develop new legal and institutional tools. Even the US and EU member states have not relied on such extensive FDI restrictions, despite Beijing’s aggressive acquisitions in their sensitive sectors. Instead, both are employing a combination of sectoral legal tools, such as data protection laws or revised mergers and acquisitions rules, and institutional bodies, like the US Committee on Foreign Investment. Without the appropriate legal and regulatory sanction, India might expose itself to reciprocal measures.

This is also part of a broader trend defining globalisation: the era of free and open trade may be at an end. The future may be characterised by ‘gated’ globalisation, where economic relationships will have to be underpinned by political trust. India stands to gain from this. Its political familiarity with large trading blocs like the US, EU and Japan make it a far more secure economic partner than China.

If this moment is inevitable, India must also work with its partners to shape and influence China’s economic behaviour.


This commentary originally appeared in The Economic Times.

Health Policy belongs to the national security domain and different stakeholders must engage

Samir Saran, President, ORF was interviewed by Oxford Political Review in the backdrop of the Indian government’s decision to enforce a complete lockdown, India’s capacities and challenges, and its potential role in the global fight against COVID19.

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Oxford Political Review: While the strict lockdown demonstrates the Modi government’s determination to control the virus from spreading, is India prepared to handle the pandemic and the massive economic disruption in making?

Samir Saran: Few nations are truly prepared for a pandemic of this nature and scale. India does possess some advantages in terms of the state’s decades of experience when it comes to fighting communicable diseases and natural disasters. But it also has the challenge of responding to this pandemic while continuing to battle legacy health challenges. Its health systems are likely to be overwhelmed unless it is able to moderate the surge of COVID19 and this has motivated the stringent lockdown.

The economic disruptions, on the other hand, will be far harder to manage. While India’s public distribution system may mitigate against severe harm to life and livelihood, the pandemic will hit its vast informal economy the hardest. It remains to be seen whether India can use this opportunity to rectify many of the institutional and administrative limitations that have hobbled this sector for the past seven decades. India now has digitalisation as an ally and it may well be a very powerful policy instrument to respond to a complex Indian economy.

As we enter the next phase of the lockdown, it is apparent that the government is attempting to balance health and life concerns and the economy. It is expected that some sectors including agriculture and manufacturing may be able to restore operations, albeit with limited capacity and under strict safety protocols. This attempt to put together a ‘smart lockdown’ model is something useful for India and other countries as the length of the combat with this pandemic may be considerable.

OPR: In a recent article, you termed the present crisis as an ‘infodemic’ in light of how information itself and information networks affected the discourse on COVID-19. In this context, how do you assess the response of global institutions like the World Health Organization?

SS: It is an unfortunate truth that the WHO’s actions in the early weeks of the outbreak contributed to the ‘infodemic’. Its early recommendations against travel bans and its delay in declaring Covid19 a global public health emergency contributed to many nations acting late and relying on incomplete information. This proved fatal to thousands around the world. The WHO failed both in its advisory role, in failing to alert the world on time, and in its technical role when it continued to amplify China’s assessments on the cause, location, and virality of the outbreak.

The WHO has named and shamed governments including China in earlier instances. This time, by soft peddling the China narrative, the WHO leadership has lost credibility. The organisation is important, and as the Indian Prime Minister mentioned, at the virtual G-20 summit, the WHO needs both strengthening and reform.

OPR: Where does India position itself in the ongoing blame-game between the US and China? As an emerging power with global ambitions, would it be prudent to keep out of these debates with global ramifications. Do you feel that it is high time that India too should contribute to the international opinion on whether any accountability needs to be fixed or not?   

SS: Unlike both the US and China, India is not inclined to see every global challenge from a zero-sum perspective. Delhi is unlikely to dive into shrill conversations about what the virus should be called but there is no equivalence between the US and China on this issue. China concealed facts, their intentions were less than honest, and they must be called out.

That being said, India should certainly not “keep out of the debate”. The real question, after all, is not about semantics, but about China’s growing clout in international organisations—especially the UN and its numerous agencies—and whether this compromises the independence and integrity of these institutions.

The takeaway for India is that it must recalibrate its approach towards global institutions in the decade ahead. Delhi must build its own presence within them and lead coalitions that can advance its own interests as well as limit the ability of other powers to manipulate them. This requires the deployment of both financial and diplomatic resources, which, so far, New Delhi has either been unable or unwilling to do.

OPR: How exactly could COVID-19-driven disruptions alter India’s engagement with her immediate neighbourhood as well as her standing on a global level? On the regional level, India’s assistance to Maldives has been appreciated, but easing the ban on the export of the hydroxychloroquine after President Trump’s tweet is seen as a sign of giving in to the American pressure. Having a large manpower of trained paramedical stuff, a major producer of generic drugs, and consisting of strong logistical capacities covering the expanse of the Indo-Pacific region, what stops India from taking the lead in the global fight against COVID-19?

SS: The Trump incident is best seen for what it is—one more erratic idiosyncrasy of his presidency and the media’s willingness to sensationalise it in both geographies. India would likely have exported HCQ to the US and any other country in need in any case. India has sufficient surpluses and capacity and has been the largest actor in the HCQ supply chain for many years.

Separating the signal from the noise would reveal that India has been one of the few nations willing to show global leadership. Delhi was quick to reach out to SAARC and the G20 in order to help coordinate regional and global responses to the pandemic. India has helped repatriate citizens from around the world as the crisis broke out and has delivered public goods to nations worldwide.

Delhi should use this moment to focus on the challenges at home, to define its own role in the world, and to assess who its actual friends and partners are. For me, how New Delhi is able to steer the Indian population and the Indian economy over the next six to 12 months will be its defining moment. If India gets it right, the world will stand up and take notice. If we get it wrong, others will write our story.

OPR: Besides shaping debates and potential interventions in the domains of foreign policy and economy, Observer Research Foundation (ORF) also runs a Public Health Initiative. Alongside the ongoing efforts by the Indian government as well as the leading industrialists, could think tanks like ORF also a play a role in aiding India’s efforts in addressing the present crisis?

SS: ORF has responded very rapidly to this pandemic as a policy think tank. Through our COVID19 tracker, we are identifying the spread of this disease here in India, and around the world, with accurate and real-time information. We are producing a daily curation of essays and articles from experts in public health, finance, geopolitics and other areas to provide a full assessment of the impact of this pandemic as well as predictions for the future. And we hope to leverage ORF’s digital platforms to inform the public about the different aspects of this crisis.

Think tanks, especially in the emerging world, must shoulder the responsibility of augmenting state capacity; certainly during this pandemic but also in less turbulent times. We remain honest arbiters of a wide spectrum of analyses from across the world in an era where misinformation sprints many miles. Institutions like ours must bring together other institutions and experts who can provide multidisciplinary perspectives and solutions to those who are receptive.

A few years ago, we at ORF argued that health policy belongs to the National Security Domain and that many actors and experts with different perspectives and areas of expertise—including in diplomacy, economics, and technology—must engage with it. This pandemic is forcing many to do exactly this.

Coexisting with #Covid19: Saving lives and the economy

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Experts at India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare published a paper on 9 April, 2020, looking at 41 sentinel sites across the country. It revealed that of the 5,911 severe acute respiratory illness (SARI) patients tested since 15 February, 1.8% have tested positive for Covid19. Of those who had tested positive, 39.2% did not report international travel or any history of contact with a known patient—clearly indicating that at least parts of India are likely in the stage of community transmission. By itself, this is neither unusual nor surprising—it is indeed the nature of pandemics to take root in communities over time.

A total of 179,374 samples from 164,773 individuals have been tested as of 11 April, 2020. Just around 7,703 individuals have been confirmed Covid19 positive. India is testing just over 17,000 samples per day, which is inadequate given the vastness of the country and the current spread covering almost half the districts. This means that the true scale of spread remains unknown and most areas remain potential breakout zones. The spurts that we are witnessing in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur, Indore, and Ahmedabad are cause for deep concern.

India is testing just over 17,000 samples per day, which is inadequate given the vastness of the country and the current spread covering almost half the districts.

Despite efforts over the past few weeks to give it a boost, India’s healthcare delivery capacity remains limited. According to the Government, an order for 49,000 ventilators has been placed in view of the low numbers that exist within the system, but it is unclear by when they will arrive and be distributed among the special centres created for Covid19 patients. The Government has acknowledged the need for “rapidly ramping up” the number of Corona-testing facilities, Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), Isolation Beds, ICU beds, ventilators, and other essential equipment. This only serves to highlight the fact that the current levels of healthcare facilities will not stand a chance of coping with a sudden and huge surge. Hence, a national lockdown was, and remains, the only option since any widespread community breakout will overwhelm medical infrastructure.

A national lockdown was, and remains, the only option since any widespread community breakout will overwhelm medical infrastructure.

If we go by what has been officially stated, more than half of India’s districts are yet to record a single case of Covid19. But the virus may have made its way to many of these districts. Whether or not this is true will only be known through increased testing, which has not happened and is something that needs to be rectified with alacrity.

India has no doubt responded strongly and decisively to the crisis by opting for a countrywide lockdown. According to the Oxford Covid19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) database’s Stringency Index, on 25 March, India was the sixth country to opt for a complete lockdown and achieve a stringency index score of 100.

Yet, the fact remains that the lockdown is a blunt instrument. A country like India cannot afford to indefinitely extend it across regions when a clear assessment of the risk of community spread is impossible for lack of information.

The fact remains that the lockdown is a blunt instrument. A country like India cannot afford to indefinitely extend it across regions when a clear assessment of the risk of community spread is impossible for lack of information.

The lockdown, as we have it now, has virtually brought the national economy to a grinding halt. This hurts the informal workforce, micro businesses, and unorganised labour the most and is bound to have long-lasting implications. The use of a nation-wide lockdown, instead of a fine-grained approach, was a forced hand because of the impossibility of conducting local level assessments of the spread. The cost of not testing smartly or widely enough—whatever the reason—is unfortunately being borne disproportionately by daily wagers and vulnerable groups.

We can only hope that the experts the Government is consulting have briefed the political leadership of the lessons learnt—nationally and globally—over the past months. And that in the next week or two, we will not be blinded by lack of information or intent, or be limited by tentativeness of action. One must make it clear that full marks need to be given for the stringent 21-day lockdown: It was the need of the hour.

However, as of now we have failed to capitalise on the time advantage the lockdown has given us. We need to think on our feet, tap into every resource possible, and formulate an exit strategy rather than make the poor pay for an overburdened system’s lack of agility. We also need to prevent value destruction on account of unimaginative policy.

This is the moment to embrace talent from outside the confines of Government and infuse economic policy with ideas to reignite the Indian economy and tell the world that the India Story is far from over. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must seize the moment.

Various assessments of the post-pandemic world suggest that there is a real threat of gains in poverty reduction being reversed on account of Covid19’s impact on the global economy. India would not remain untouched if this were to happen. We need to act now to mitigate the impact of the blow even if we cannot avoid it entirely.

Various assessments of the post-pandemic world suggest that there is a real threat of gains in poverty reduction being reversed on account of Covid19’s impact on the global economy. India would not remain untouched if this were to happen. 

India is an outlier in terms of the scale and extent of the lockdown. Over the next fortnight, we should aggressively try and map the spread of the virus using methods such as countrywide sample testing or pooled testing. It is encouraging that States like Maharashtra are currently considering such strategies. We need to come up with a blueprint for a staggered approach to get us out of the unsustainable country-level total lockdown.

India cannot be a country in suspended animation waiting for a miracle to happen. For, a miracle won’t happen, no matter how hard we pray for it. That is not how killer viruses run their course. That is definitely not how the Covid19 pandemic is playing out globally. A pragmatic and scientific approach is the only way out of this seemingly impossible maze; that’s how you win a game of Chinese Checkers.

Three stark comparisons have emerged in the past two weeks. Statistically, despite its limited health infrastructure, India has done better than most others—especially advanced nations in Europe and America with fabled health services—in terms of infections, hospital admissions, ICU crowding, and fatalities.

Second, India has witnessed strong cooperation between the Union Government and State Governments (health is a State List subject, a fact often forgotten or unknown to commentators) and there has been bipartisan support for the measures initiated by the Prime Minister. In other democracies, bitter partisan politics over Covid19 have been on display.

Third, India is the only large economy where a lockdown has been accompanied by the near shutting of the national economy, resulting in an unprecedented disruption in jobs, productivity, and revenue.

If prevention is the primary tool India has adopted, then a blanket lockdown cannot be the only instrument we use. Tech and data-driven mapping of senior citizens and those people suffering from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) has to be extensively conducted. Everything from Aadhar and municipal data to digitised hospital records need to be scanned to figure out exactly who must stay home—and will need to be assisted in this regard—and who can be permitted to return to a less-restrictive, soft-lockdown work environment. Community health workers must be deployed for aggressive mapping of villages and urban settlements for the invisible elderly and chronically ill – finding those who do not exist in any current electronic health record is key. Of course, this has to be a ‘privacy sensitive’ exercise.

We have seen skillful deployment of the lockdown by all, but this policy hammer has not been accompanied by a sharp economic respite. Experts from India and abroad seem to converge on the idea that spending is necessary and that money deployed must reach its intended goal within a specified timeframe. These goals must include lifeline protections, support for supply chains and demand stimulation, and wealth protection. While the central government must focus on the macro instruments and agencies, its energy must now also be directed towards protecting capital. The state governments must partner with specialised institutions to respond to local challenges that are contextual and individual and, in such instances, community programmes must be implemented.

We have seen skillful deployment of the lockdown by all, but this policy hammer has not been accompanied by a sharp economic respite. Experts from India and abroad seem to converge on the idea that spending is necessary and that money deployed must reach its intended goal within a specified timeframe.

It could be argued, and correctly so, that human lives matter more than the economy which can be rebuilt. While this sentiment may sustain popular support for strong measures to control and rollback the pandemic, it will not obviate the need to address serious concerns linked to the economy which sustains livelihoods and, hence, life itself.

This is why a staggered exit from the lockdown, accompanied by stepped-up testing to cover every district, is necessary. A containment policy has been drafted and is already being implemented by several states after identifying ‘hot spots’. There is across-the-board agreement on what must not be done—namely, resumption of inter-State travel by plane, train, or bus.

What we need now is an agreement on what can be done. This list must include immediate resumption of agricultural activity (harvesting cannot wait for too long); restarting of certain micro, medium, and small enterprises so that the impact on jobs and income disruption is minimal; and resumption of basic economic activities like reviving stalled supply lines and retail services to ensure the looming crisis of essential goods is avoided while ‘social distancing’ remains in place. In the next stage, resumption of other activities like construction and reopening of some commercial and trading entities can be considered. Industries must then begin to operate under a special safety protocol which will ensure protection.

If the challenge of shutting down India was huge, the challenge of reopening India will be bigger. But India cannot, and must not, remain shut down for longer than what it takes to get its act together. Lives matter; so does the economy. Let’s not force ourselves into a corner where we have to make a false choice.