Digital Debates — CyFy Journal 2020

Digital Debates — CyFy Journal 2020

2020 is our Black Mirror moment. Each day reflecting back at us the deepest and darkest fissures of our digital societies and of our increasingly binary selves. Conversely and perversely, perhaps, our screens were also our only windows to the world, enabling us to stay connected and engaged, offering fulfillment even as the pandemic kept us apart, isolated and distant. We are, consequently, having to relentlessly engage with cleavages in society, amplified by technology, that we had buried and forgotten in the euphoria of globalisation.

Alongside our vulnerabilities, the ‘attention economy’, where human engagement with devices translates to value and valuations, grew at an unprecedented scale and intensity. From mobility to consumption and transactions, our existence became ever more enveloped in the embrace of big tech and smart tech. The pandemic had tilted the scales of an open debate, and, indeed, human activity and choices (data) were oil in this new industrial cycle. What the Gulf War was to television, COVID-19 has been to online platforms: millions were glued to personal screens, watching human death and misery unfold through the imagery of bar charts and log curves. Millions more were struggling to find — in the digital realm — means to sustain life and livelihood; and nearly all who engage with us at this conference today, were discovering their personas, politics, preferences and, indeed, identities in the world of chrome.

You are connected; therefore, you are.

As identities become indelibly linked to the online world and the apps that kept us connected, these became venues of renewed interest and importance for the state, corporates and communities to mobilise, market and manufacture consent. A heady cocktail of fear and uncertainty saw the emergence of digitally-induced conformity. From masking up to letting go of privacy and choice, we saw a global willingness to conform, submit and allow “draconian but necessary” surveillance measures — think of the submission to temperature readouts and the sharing of our travel history. In this scared and scarred new world, reality flipped over and, suddenly, it was the mobile device that carried a human. In the end, we were little more than our IP code or our mobile number. And the pandemic was certainly was not the only guilty party.

This year’s Digital Debates echoes the darker undertones of 2020 and the decade ahead of us. Through three big stories that have taken centre stage, the nine essays capture the zeitgeist of our times.

First, the pandemic has demonstrated that the workplace is inconsequential to the creation of value. Are we racing towards the threshold where humans themselves become inconsequential to work? Utkarsh Amitabh disagrees. There is infinite possibility, he says, afforded to ordinary individuals through online spaces. His essay celebrates the arrival of the passion economy, hailing the demise of the workplace as an enabler for people to monetise their skills and create economic opportunities for themselves. Manavi Jain, however, says it may be too early to ring the death knell on our coffee machine chats: our need for collaboration, and for a clear demarcation between work(spaces) and life, will compel us to return to brick and mortar offices. We may, in fact, finally see employee well- being and mental health being given the attention it deserves.

Yet, in the short-term, the outlook appears bleak. 400 million full-time jobs disappeared in the second quarter of the year and many others found themselves unwillingly trapped in circumstances that are typical to the gig economy: “flexible” work hours that served as a veneer for exploitation of labour, and the loss of a social safety net. Analogous to this phenomenon was the deification – though not appreciation in any concrete way – of essential workers in so-called low-skilled sectors. Is it time, as Sangeet Jain enquires in her lucid essay, to shed the denigration of manual labour and reassess what “valuable” work means? Paradoxically, will prolific digitalisation catalyse reassessment of how to price human labour?

Is it also time to formally price unpaid labour? While gender equality in the office space has been an agenda on HR manuals for some time now, the pandemic has taken that discussion straight into people’s homes. In a survey conducted across the cities of New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune and Kolkata [1], 50% of the women reported facing motivational challenges in the work-from-home setup as they disproportionately bore the “double burden” of taking care of household duties while holding down a full-time job. It appears that while men are willing to cede women some space in a formal office set up, they seem unwilling to lend their partners a helping hand at home. Another study showed that women accounted for 55% of the increase in job losses in the US in April this year. [2] This threatens to push back gender equality — in the now fused home and workspace — by decades.

Second, for millennia, a regime change by an external power was achieved through violent conflict, war, and annexation. Now technology allows regimes to be destabilised with a degree of simplicity. This was first brought sharply into focus by the 2016 US Elections. Disinformation, misinformation, falsehoods and lies were the legacy of that election. Millions believe that external actors shaped the US mandate. Whether it actually happened was immaterial. Perceptions were sufficient to bring about a loss of trust in institutions and the delegitimisation of the Trump presidency. As a consequence, the US of A is still a divided polity as we head into the next election cycle. This delegitimisation of regimes is agnostic to political systems — democratic, authoritarian, or otherwise. As we entered the new millennium two decades ago, technology held the promise of giving power back to the people by democratising media and communications. The opposite has happened. The imminent US presidential election has underscored the importance of regulating technology (and with it misinformation and disinformation) to secure democracy. Genie Gan canvasses the cybersecurity landscape during the pandemic, with a focus on the Asia-Pacific, and highlights how trust and transparency have become the currency that sustains partnerships between governments and businesses, and between state and citizen.

The (lack of ) trust in tech goes beyond just politics and governance. Even as we navigate the digital realm with renewed vigour during this pandemic, the safety of cyberspace has deteriorated at an accelerated pace, resulting in a scenario where age- old divides and cleavages are only getting more pronounced. The unregulated web is rife with hate speech, phishing attempts, and cyberattacks with attacks against hospitals and healthcare institutions rising by leaps and bounds during this pandemic. Those groups that faced marginalisation in the real world are facing increased aggression in the virtual, with women and minorities on social media bearing the brunt of online abuse across the world. How do we create safe spaces in a virtual world that is lightly ordered and under- regulated?

Third, technology no longer “intersects” with politics: technology is politics. The intimate enmeshing of technology and national identity has become the driving force of geopolitics, and the pursuit of technological gains is not restricted to the realm of fabs and factories, but envelops societies and global regimes and systems as well. James Lewis delves in depth into the exercise of state control in cyberspace, the so-called “Balkanisation” of the internet, while noting with acerbity that the sovereigns are simply reclaiming their role from the quasi-sovereigns, the unwieldy tech giants, whose economic worth has skyrocketed during this pandemic even as economies contracted and half a billion people faced being pushed into poverty. Elina Noor problematises this framework by pointing to asymmetries between the so-called Global North and Global South, where although the latter represents the fastest growing market for digital products and services, they are not proportionately represented in the norms and international frameworks being built around these technologies. Coining the term technology centrism, Cuihong Cai explores the different strategies — offensive or outward-looking techno-nationalism vs. defensive or inward-looking techno-nationalism — adopted by nations in pursuit of their technological goals, whether to address or maintain global asymmetries. While Cai calls for an interdependent digital community, with the well-being of people at its core, Lewis underlines cooperation between like-minded nations, noting simply, “Seeking consensus with the authoritarians is a waste of time.” Noor, meanwhile, explores the idea of true independence, where all nations are afforded the choice of placing their own self- determination front-and-centre.

In a plagued world — in both the literal and figurative sense of the word — where gated globalisation is the consensus and digital fences are visible across jurisdictions, it is crucial that we hold on to the kernel of hope espoused by the defenders of interconnectedness. Three-quarters of humanity resides in 137 developing countries, and, according to the UNCTAD Digital Economy Report 2019 [3], these countries account for 90% of global digital growth. Billions residing in these nations will be lifted out of poverty through digital tools during this Fourth Industrial Revolution. The grand finale of Digital Debates, therefore, is Nisha Holla’s piece, a clarion call for the democratisation of digital technology, emphasising inclusion, rights, legal recourse, and affirmative sovereignty. Content created must now reflect the aspirations of these billions, especially in a diverse country like India. For instance, the rise of local language content in India is perhaps inevitable with enough users coming online who are conversant only in local dialects.

The hopes and aspirations of these next billions should serve as the motivator for all to strive towards an internet for all. Just as the Cold War “hotline” was a symbol of connectedness even in the face of protracted conflict, the digital lines must remain open even if there is disagreement. CyFy exists not just to debate discord, but to find common pathways for our common humanity. Ideas and perspectives streaming this year from CyFy, New Delhi, reflect a section of the aspirations of India’s 1.3 billion people that are mirrored in Abuja, in Jakarta, in Bogota, in Dhaka and beyond.

We aspire, as we are connected.


[1] Brinda Sarkar, “Five in ten women facing motivational challenges in work-from-home scenario: Survey”, The Economic Times, July 20, 2020.

[2] Danielle Kurtzleben, “Women Bear The Brunt Of Coronavirus Job Losses”, NPR, May 9, 2020.

[3] UNCTAD, Digital Economy Report, September 2019, Geneva, United Nations Organisation, 2020.

ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Geopolitics and investment in emerging markets after COVID19

 Geopolitics, EMDE, COVID19, Investment


As investors ponder the impact of the world’s greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, emerging markets (EMs) face a swift reversal of fortune. Some of the fastest-growing economies in the world have been brought to a virtual standstill, reeling with the effects of an exogenous shock to demand, a public health emergency, and nascent infrastructure with which to combat the pandemic.

While multilateral development banks and international financial institutions have moved swiftly to address critical funding shortfalls, the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt severe challenges to the EM growth model — and to the livelihoods of people within these countries. As governments in emerging markets and developing economies (EMDEs) have less fiscal space at their disposal — but harbour an ongoing need for spending on relief and stimulus measures — credit downgrades from the ratings agencies may be inevitable.

Yet, even in the wake of downgrades, this juncture of COVID-induced distress might open up a propitious opportunity for international investors and companies to invest in infrastructure in EMDEs. As such, these investors would address existing and future gaps in critical infrastructure, and ideally provide options for a green future. It will also be critical for governments within EMDE countries to align priorities with pools of institutional capital.

In light of the exceptional circumstances of COVID-19, as investors consider their portfolios, investment committees (ICs) will need to approach their geopolitical asset allocation in a creative way. As the clouds and confusion begin to clear with regard to living in a drastically altered landscape, a significant opportunity is likely to emerge for infrastructure investors to deploy capital to EMDEs with a long horizon.

With $13.7 trillion worth of negative yielding assets held in portfolios, the hunt for yield and long-term value are likely to reemerge as the concerns for safe havens begin to wane. As such, we explore potential guiding mechanisms for investors to help navigate the shifting macroeconomic and geopolitical environment in EMs, as well as potential policy recommendations for officials tasked with rebuilding their countries after the virus.

Macroeconomic snapshot: the perfect storm

Emerging markets and developing economies have faced a perfect storm in the wake of COVID-19. As the virus hit China in January 2020, emerging markets faced unprecedented capital outflows from foreign investors – dwarfing outflows during previous crises, including the 2008 Financial Crisis (GFC), the taper tantrum of 2013 (when investor panic triggered a spike in US Treasury yields on news that the Federal Reserve was slowly putting the breaks on its quantitative easing programme), and the renminbi depreciation of 2015. In the face of outflows – and depreciation of local currencies – sovereign borrowing costs have risen, thus placing a strain on the ability of many EMDE governments to continue to fight the public health emergency, as well as to shore up their economies amidst the reverberating shock to demand.

As a result of the sudden economic stops around the globe and the ongoing lockdowns, trade activity has plummeted. Commodity prices – typically a bellwether for economic growth for many EMDEs – have remained painfully low, with the price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil plunging to an unprecedented nadir in negative territory. Demand for tourism – another key driver of economic growth and job creation in many emerging economies, such as Mexico, the Philippines and Thailand – remains severely curtailed. Indeed, international tourist arrivals are projected to plunge by some 60 to 80% in 2020. Remittances – another key source of national income and contribution to household purchasing power for many EMDEs – are down, and this precipitous fall is currently most pronounced in Latin America.

And, while many companies rush to secure funding from governments and capital markets, non-financial corporations in EMs continue to suffer from a debt overhang. Some $31.2 trillion sits on non-bank corporate balance sheets. At the end of 2019, an estimated $3.8 trillion of this debt was denominated in US dollars, which might place undue pressure on borrowers to service their debt in light of local currency depreciation. (If one accounts for offshore borrowing and the use of FX derivatives, the total amount of US dollar denominated debt on EM corporate balance sheets could be much higher). Looking at total debt spread across corporates, banks and sovereigns, some $7 trillion of bonds and loans are due to come to maturity in EMs through the end of 2021.

The upside: amplified macroprudential measures

Despite this conflagration of economic challenges, governments and central banks within some EMDEs continue to exhibit a strong implementation of macroprudential policies – namely, by working to keep a lid on inflation, reducing the fiscal deficit and maintaining floating exchange rates. Core inflation (omitting volatile food and energy prices) remains muted within many EMDEs, underscoring the ability of central banks and economic officials to maintain successful inflation targeting regimes, both prior to and throughout the corona crisis. Notable examples on this front include Brazil, Colombia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Additionally, at the end of 2019, as a result of concerted efforts to reduce their fiscal deficits, Colombia posted the first fiscal primary surplus in almost a decade and Brazil posted its smallest annual fiscal deficit since 2014. As a result of lockdowns and recessions, imports have also been constrained: consequently, several countries boast current account surpluses. Notably, Brazil’s trade gap has narrowed by the greatest amount since 2007. And, although EM currencies were battered throughout the start of COVID-19, depreciation against the US dollar has largely stabilized, with some currencies significantly undervalued at the time of writing.

On the whole, central banks in EMs have been able to step in and help provide liquidity support to households and corporations hard hit by the crisis. In many cases, central banks have used the architecture and tools established during the GFC to be able to help to enable price stability and sufficient liquidity and functioning of financial markets. One EM central bank has even embarked upon the policy experiment of monetary financing; that is, of monetizing state debt by buying bonds directly from the government, rather than from the secondary market.

While foreign investors digest these moves, it is important to point out that at the time of writing, governments and central banks – acting in concert with the financial sector and central banks in advanced economies – have thus far been able to avert a financial crisis, despite the onset of a global health emergency and the worst peacetime economic slowdown since the Great Depression. While many EMDEs take up the fight against COVID-19 and its aftermath – mirroring actions and commitments from officials in advanced economies to “do whatever it takes” – EMDEs do indeed have less fiscal room for manoeuvre than developed markets.

To date, the COVID-19 fiscal response in EMs has amounted to only one-fifth of that of advanced economies. In contrast, countries such as the US can reap more fiscal space by being the world’s reserve currency. Additionally, some eurozone bonds (such as the German 10-year bund) are also considered to be a safe haven for some institutional investors.

Amidst mounting sovereign debt and constrained fiscal space, credit downgrades in EMs have begun to unfurl, posing a challenge to the ways in which investment committees traditionally approach geographical asset allocation. In the wake of a downgrade, it is important for investors to take a step back and ask the following questions:

  • Which countries demonstrated a robust commitment to implementing macroprudential measures prior to the outbreak of COVID-19?
  • Which countries have a strong domestic market, rendering them somewhat resilient in the face of an exogenous shock?
  • Which countries have boasted strong labour force productivity, with a commitment to boost competition in sectors of long-term demand in the post-COVID recovery landscape?

Even if a country receives a downgrade as a result of its enhanced fiscal efforts deployed to help combat COVID-19 and to address the exogenous shock of the pandemic, it is important to recognize that for some countries, these efforts are an expansion of spending during exceptional circumstances, rather than a departure from an overall commitment to macroprudential measures.

Reading the tea leaves: geopolitics and deploying long-term capital to infrastructure

While we might recognize that there are some countries that fit the bill in terms of their economic planning and policy, for investors looking to EMDEs, geopolitics can often cloud the landscape for investing. For the private sector, and specifically investors and executives, geopolitics relates to infrastructure in three key ways:

1) Geopolitical asset allocation, at the portfolio level

On a country-by-country basis, which countries manifest the strongest risk-reward ratios? Here, it is important for investors to distinguish between absolute and perceived risk. For example, an institutional investor with little risk appetite might consider investing in airports in Paris to be a geopolitically low-risk investment, versus deploying capital to airports in Vietnam, which might be perceived as higher risk. However, in light of the rise of populism in advanced economies, and risks of potential nationalization, some countries or regions perceived to be less geopolitically risky might indeed harbour more absolute risk.

2) Managing geopolitical risk, at the asset management level

While operating assets on the ground, infrastructure investors are often confronted with effectively managing geopolitical risk at the asset level. Several questions that may need to be addressed include: how might any (small or large) breach of project safety engender a shift in perception by the host country, potentially rendering the investor a target of local political ire? How might changes in the regulatory environment affect investments, and how might investors anticipate potential changes in the regulatory environment? How might investors best navigate potentially conflicting positions between federal, provincial and municipal authorities? Recognizing that taxes can become a tool amidst a rise in geopolitical tensions, how might investors be able to anticipate potential changes in taxation that might hinder their position, both in terms of profits and also in ease of operation?

3) The intersection between geopolitics and economics

Infrastructure investing has the power to spur a positive feedback loop within an economy. By creating both direct and indirect economic growth and employment, and improving livelihoods and quality of life, greenfield infrastructure investments can provide a foundation for generating economic growth via agriculture, manufacturing and service activity. Brownfield infrastructure investments – including upgrades to existing assets – have the potential to greatly enhance the quality of life in a given area, as well as to boost efficiency (for example, upgrading a toll road can ease traffic and congestion). By acting as a foundation and a multiplier effect of economic growth and quality of life, infrastructure investments can, over time, potentially reduce geopolitical risk by contributing to livelihoods and generating economic opportunities.

In trying to discern which EMDE countries may prove attractive for investment, it is advisable for investors to identify which governments exhibit a strong capacity for follow-through on policy reform. In order to attract voters – or possibly, foreign investors – political leaders might promise many pro-growth or pro-business policies. To promise is, of course, not enough. The question for investors is: which countries have demonstrated the potential to ratify and implement such change?

For example, the Brazilian Congress ratified the country’s historic pension reform in October 2019. Although this had been a policy priority of the current and previous presidential administrations, the country’s legislative body followed through on the reform. In the case of India, while many executives and investors had complained about the opacity of the country’s complex tax system, the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST) greatly simplified taxation. Sometimes, policies such as the GST might induce short-term pain for long-term gain. For investors, It is advisable to identify signs from governments which might harbour this long-term vision – and the capacity to see it through to implementation.

For investors, it is advisable to identify signs from governments which might harbour this long-term vision — and the capacity to see it through to implementation. Partly, this depends upon the strength of existing institutions, as well as the ability to reform institutions as the need arises. Notably, in the case of Brazil, while some investors have been deterred from the ongoing Lava Jato investigations, this demonstrates the strength of the institution of justice.

Crucially, it is not necessarily only democracies which exhibit the capacity for follow-through on pro-business and growth-oriented policy reforms, as well as the ability to constructively reform institutions. Vietnam is a key example here, where foreign and institutional investors continue to respond positively to the government’s ongoing market reforms by deploying billions of dollars to the country. Again, taken together with a consideration of which governments might harbour a commitment to macroprudential measures, a tried-and-tested capability for follow-through on policy reform may also be a signpost for investment committees to identify in light of a potential downgrade.

At the sector level: building back green

In the World Economic Forum’s Great Reset initiative, as many governments chart out policies to constructively rebuild their countries in the aftermath of COVID-19, a clear emphasis is placed on addressing critical gaps in soft infrastructure, which may help enable countries to withstand a health crisis or a sudden stop in economic activity. This includes hospitals and public health institutions, broadband connectivity, educational platforms to continue teaching in a virtual classroom, and supporting sustainable food security, access to clean water and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Of course, these investments are not limited to EMDEs. Advanced economies such as the US and France have worked to address some of these gaps in critical infrastructure in the wake of the pandemic. Accordingly, these types of soft infrastructure categories – rather than the hard infrastructure of ports, roads, airports and bridges – are likely to be immediate policy priorities for some EMDEs in magnetizing foreign investment. Utilities and power are also likely to rank high on the list, insofar as power underpins this softer infrastructure.

In considering economic vitality after COVID-19 – and to do so in a way that shapes a more sustainable and resilient future – governments across the globe have touted green and digital as key policy priorities. However, in order to attract foreign investment, EMDEs will need both strong institutions, as well as the capacity for institutional reform, which would possibly then foster a sense of confidence in fund managers that these might be deployed effectively.

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) indices have outperformed traditional benchmarks during the current pandemic and are likely to attract more funds going forward. Nevertheless, it is crucial for ESG investors to identify jurisdictions with clear green taxonomies and government policies designed to enhance innovation and market creation.

Government action, alone, can’t do the job: the private sector will have to be the locus of climate action. This should require a fresh focus on the ease of doing business, policy certainty and a regulatory landscape, which prioritizes green sectors. Undoubtedly, for many companies facing high fixed costs and negative sales – as well as heightened uncertainty about the future – the coronavirus pandemic has constrained the ability for some corporations to deliver on past commitments to consume green energy.

A critical question to address in the post-pandemic era will be the creation of new growth centres and adaptations of growth models. In EMDEs, cities have been the locus of economic activity and have successfully brought millions out of poverty. However, as the current pandemic – or recent waves of natural disasters – show, one shock can risk undoing the work of years and potentially push millions back into poverty. Highly dense urban centres can also put pressure on both the environment and natural resources. As the risks of climate change mount, growth models in emerging markets should need to prioritize resilience and quality of life, alongside efficiency and profits. This can include the rapid development of smart cities, something Singapore has done remarkably well.

Additionally, while parts of global value chains might be onshored in the wake of COVID-19, a potentially significant opportunity arises for international investors to deploy capital for localizing supply chains. A well-developed domestic supply chain may require improved connectivity, both physical and digital. Digital platforms and knowledge sharing will likely be integrated nodes on the value chain. Smaller self-contained habitats will be required for workers, and sustainable solutions are likely to be needed for housing, mobility and utilities, as well as natural resource management.

Investments in clean power should be requisite to underpin both old and new economic growth: that is, for industrial activity and digital connectivity. Finally, these countries will need to develop the human capital required to carry out jobs that are likely to rely upon increasingly complex technologies. Catalyzing infrastructure investment in the wake of COVID might provide much-needed jobs, and may also sow the seeds for future skills to meet changing patterns of demand in the new economy.

Conclusion: getting it right

In the pre-COVID age, one advanced economy within the Asia-Pacific region has managed to deftly invest in infrastructure in developing countries for the long haul: Japan. Indeed, Japan has had a long history of exchanging overseas development assistance for resources to fuel its manufacturing growth. In later years, it has become an exporter of what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calls “quality infrastructure investment”.

Recipient countries such as India have affirmed the high quality of such investments – including bullet trains and subway stations – and the Japanese government has also prioritized the facilitation of knowledge exchanges to help nurture and develop human capital. Critically, Japanese infrastructure investment is not necessarily hinged upon whether a country is classified as a democracy, suggesting that both lucrative profits and economic and financial stability may not just emanate from states which profess to be democratic.

It should be noted that Japan has been criticized for its use of coal at home and for its development of coal plants abroad. Indeed, even in light of commitments made by several Asian governments (most notably, South Korea) to “build back green”, Japan has allocated only a nominal amount of the country’s $2.1 trillion COVID relief package toward the green energy transition. However, as relief segues into stimulus and the global economy inches toward recovery in a post-pandemic world, Japan has the potential to help provide an environmental component with its quality infrastructure investments. Indeed, Environmental Minister Shinjiro Koizumi recently announced increasing regulation for building coal power plants overseas — a move that is in keeping with the Japanese business community’s action to help reduce carbon emissions.

Similarly, Australia has declared its intention to become a “renewable energy export superpower” with a commitment to export solar energy to Singapore via cables and the use of the world’s largest battery. A resource-rich country known for exporting coal and natural gas around the world, Australia has the potential to build upon its past relationships and know-how to help bolster the energy transition within emerging markets and advanced economies alike.

In a world of competing visions within foreign policy, both Japan and Australia demonstrate that it is possible to invest abroad without ideology and preconditions – which is a straightforward approach, and likely necessary to help address infrastructure gaps around the globe.

Finally, while infrastructure investors can look to generate profit in EMDEs over the long term, it is advisable for the governments within these countries to explain to their voting publics the importance of attracting foreign capital. This requires clear data, and also versatility in how this data and story is communicated to different interest groups – be it provincial or municipal governments, citizens or local businesses. The story needs to continue throughout the lifespan of such investments – and indeed, potentially after completion.

Development banks within host countries can help provide such continuity amidst changes in administration at the federal level. It is also worth exploring the ways in which some development banks can become independent entities, rather than organized via political appointments. This might provide a much-needed ballast for the dry powder that waits in the wings – and for institutional capital with nascent exposure to infrastructure in emerging markets.

This commentary originally appeared in World Economic Forum.


London Conference 2019: Managing Technological Disruptions – Governance and Accountability


London Conference 2019: Managing Technological Disruptions – Governance and Accountability

While technological competition is becoming a branch of geopolitics, technology can also help states address common challenges.

Play Video

14 June 2019


Dr Samir Saran, President, Observer Research Foundation
Terah Lyons, Founding Executive Director, Partnership on AI
Stuart Russell, Professor of Computer Science, University of California, Berkeley
De Kai, Professor of Computer Science & Engineering, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Chair: Christine Foster, Managing Director for Innovation, The Alan Turing Institute

The pace of technological change has to date outstripped the capacity of international society to agree common rules for its management and governance.

Part of the challenge lies in its inherently double-edged effects. While technological competition is becoming a branch of geopolitics, technology can also help states address common challenges.

Technology is opening new domains of warfare, but also enhances resilience to natural disasters and cross-border threats. It can threaten democratic processes but also provide the means for transparency and greater accountability.

What does tech governance in a multipolar world look like? How can a regulatory balance be achieved that enables creative aspects of technology to flourish while mitigating the potential for disorder? What are the emerging technologies that demand early regulatory action? What responsibilities should private actors in the tech sector have when they operate across different jurisdictions?





Gated globalisation and fragmented supply chains

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

 COVID, pandemic, globalisation, supply chain, covid19, BRI, EU,

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

World Order, Nivedita, Russia, BRICS, G7, Valdai Club, Putin, Moscow, World Disorder, UN, SCO, multipolar, leaderless, unemployment, inequality, globalisation

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.

 China, Beijing, balancing act, economic exposure, ambition, digital globalisation, Chinese investments, 5G, Made in China 2025, Digital Silk Route, Doklam, Asian Century, economic behaviour

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.

Covid, Covid19, Health Security Domain, Think Tanks, HCQ, Debate, Political Economy, state capacity, story, Indian Economy, WHO, Smart Lockdown, Digital Platforms, geopolitics, infodemic

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

Covid, Covid-19, Coronavirus, Indian Economy, Lockdown, reopening, locking down, timeframe, skillful development, global economy, information, infrastructure, communities

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.