By the global ball and value chain

While MNCs are choosing well-established regional supply chain in East and Southeast Asia for now, India must look to the future.

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Of the many ways the post-Covid world will look different, the rapid confluence of trade, technology and national security will rank high among them. The US’s assertion in the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) that ‘economic security is national security,’ EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s call this February for ‘tech sovereignty’, and China’s focus on ‘self-reliance’ in strategic technologies portend a new age for geo-economics. All three areas have acquired a sharper edge in the middle of the pandemic.

India must signal to its citizens, businesses and the international community how it plans to respond to this moment being shaped by three developments. First, the weaponisation of economics and trade, a trend prevalent among partners and rivals alike. Second, the measurement of national power will now be based on the ability to control global digital flows comprising technology, information, human capital and finance. Can India be an influential actor?

The decoupling of supply chains due to the sharpening US-China trade war makes this an imperative. GoI seems to have sensed this moment and is attempting to seize it.

And third, old industrial tools like import substitution and market restrictions will need radical repurposing for these times. Can India devise a new mantra compatible with the latest version of globalisation? All of this translates into one layered question: How can India first attract large investments, then grow and develop its technology sector, and finally share and export ‘Digital India’ to other geographies?

This will be based on India’s ability to manufacture for, and service, the growing digital markets, as well as shape the norms, rules, standards and topography of global physical and digital supply chains. The decoupling of supply chains due to the sharpening US-China trade war makes this an imperative. GoI seems to have sensed this moment and is attempting to seize it.

Dislocations in trade and technology are an opportunity to attract global investors. India has done poorly in the past. A September 2019 Nomura report suggested that of the 56 companies relocating out of China, only three have opted for India. Nevertheless, decoupling is a long-term process. While MNCs are choosing well-established regional supply chain in East and Southeast Asia for now, India must look to the future.

Beijing’s economic statecraft underpins its efforts to shape the world in its own image through territorial aggression, debt-trap diplomacy and institutional capture.

In this regard, India’s decision to announce three interrelated schemes on production-linked incentive (PLI) for manufacturing of components and semiconductors, and electronics manufacturing clusters, is important. These replace the earlier ‘merchant export from India’ scheme, and align India’s support for its nascent electronics industry with WTO rules. This new regime for manufacturing and export is designed specifically to draw in large global manufacturers like Apple and Samsung, facilitating the relocation of a part of their production base and downstream suppliers to India.

The ability of just a few global investors to help India integrate into global supply chains (GSCs) should not be underestimated. For example, the market value of the hardware Apple produces in China was nearly $220 billion in FY2019, of which it exported $185 billion, dwarfing India’s total electronics exports of $8.8 billion in the same year. Apple has over 800 production facilities globally, over 300 of which are based in China. Even minor relocations of these value chains to India will be beneficial. The reported relocation of certain processes to India by Apple contractors Wistron and Foxconn, among the largest and most sophisticated Taiwanese electronics manufacturers, will bring with them their own secondary supply chains.

Such opportunities will multiply for India — such as the Britain-proposed ‘D10 alliance’ (a club of 10 democracies) on 5G and emerging technologies — begin to reorganise patterns of trade to favour nations ‘politically trustworthy’. The logic driving disengagement with China on crucial supply chains is obvious. Beijing’s economic statecraft underpins its efforts to shape the world in its own image through territorial aggression, debt-trap diplomacy and institutional capture. Part of India’s response to this reality will be political muscularity along the border and in the oceans. The other, more durable, response will be an obsessive nurturing and growth of the economy.

These ventures are also a litmus test for GoI’s resolve for reform.

This must be dictated by a strategy that enhances India’s ability to integrate into the production and manufacturing of strategic technologies, to secure value from global data flows, and to grow Indian platforms and digital propositions for the world. Growing and new investments from US blue-chip tech giants like Apple and Facebook into India’s manufacturing base and digital platforms augur well.

But these ventures are also a litmus test for GoI’s resolve for reform. In 1982, GoI’s integration of Suzuki into the domestic market for automobiles spawned a new wave of investments into this sector making it one of the world’s most competitive. As the realignment of supply chains accelerates post-Covid-19, investors from around the world will be closely watching the performance of these major global corporations in India before making their own decisions.


This commentary originally appeared in Economic Times.

Technology and Terror: A new era of threat in a borderless online world

Terror requires spectacle to thrive and technology has allowed this opera of violence to find new audiences and locales.

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From ISIS attaching a GoPro camera to a home-made armed drone in Syria to Islamists from the Democratic Republic of Congo uploading 4K videos pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, cyberspace and emerging technologies are facilitating terrorist activities at an unprecedented scale. The convergence of technology and terrorism represents the worst kind of feedback loop between the real and the virtual. States, meanwhile, are struggling to respond to this convergence and to balance the imperatives of national security and the freedoms afforded in cyberspace.

Given the complex structural drivers of terrorism and the trade-offs involved in regulating technology, it is imperative that policy makers first assess the real and evolving dimensions of the challenge. The popular conceptual understanding of this menace is that like war, terrorism is simply politics by other means. Whoever the actor may be, terrorism is a violent expression of alternative political values and norms for organizing societies. Motivations may vary but violence is the principal instrumentality for recruiting, propagating and financing this perverse politics. And like mainstream politics, terrorist organizations have co-opted technology as a force multiplier in achieving their objectives.

Like mainstream politics, terrorist organizations have co-opted technology as a force multiplier in achieving their objectives.

As has been suggested by many scholars, terror requires spectacle to thrive and technology has allowed this opera of violence to find new audiences and locales. The Christchurch shootings in New Zealand is perhaps the most obvious example — with the shooter streaming his actions live on social media. New communication platforms afford scale and impact at virtually no cost, a service that terrorists have used with impunity and agility over the years with deleterious consequences for communities and countries.

Some features of the internet, like end-to-end encryption and virtual private network (VPN) have made it easier than ever for terrorist organizations to find recruits and manage outreach and organization. For example, migration of pro-ISIS propaganda from likes of Facebook and Twitter to Telegram was in a large part due to encryption facility offered to all its users. Technology also allows these organizations to transcend the tyranny of geography. An organization in one country can raise funds, recruit and radicalize individuals in another part of the world with ease.

Some features of the internet, like end-to-end encryption and virtual private network (VPN) have made it easier than ever for terrorist organizations to find recruits and manage outreach and organization.

Every communication opportunity online is being exploited by these malevolent actors. From the mainstream platforms such as Facebook and Telegram to chat rooms, betting sites, porn websites and online gaming hubs. These virtual venues are fertile breeding grounds for accidental and purposeful recruits and for propagating violent narratives. The importance of ‘digital terror squads’ was emphatically asserted when, in 2016, ISIS granted its ‘media mujahids’ the same rank as those fighting for the group on the ground. This gave the online radicals pride of place that was traditionally reserved for the fighters delivering carnage on the ground. This is only one of the instances that signify just how integral, sophisticated and important cyber operations are for terrorist organizations today.

Terrorist organizations are also leapfrogging traditional hawala networks to embrace Fin-Tech as a means to finance their operations. Services like e-wallets, digital currencies, crypto-currencies and even crowd funding platforms are being leveraged to raise and launder money and finance terrorist operations. This has rendered most current practices of clamping down on terror-finance obsolete, and today more terror organizations have access to more money than ever before.

Terrorist organizations are also leapfrogging traditional hawala networks to embrace Fin-Tech as a means to finance their operations.

Amidst this worrying convergence of terrorism and technology, states have struggled to respond without threatening the infrastructure of cyberspace or the freedoms and opportunities it affords. Meanwhile, the tech platforms are having troubles of their own. The word ‘social’ in social media is under scanner, with platforms facing multiple headwinds relating to their policies on responding to terrorism, fake news and political interference among others. These platforms host billions of users even as they struggle to differentiate between their ‘social’ obligations to the digital commons and their commitments to markets and investors.

As states, platforms and grassroots organizations combat the threat of tech-enabled terrorism, it is important for them to identify certain guiding principles.

First, it is crucial that they do not unintentionally limit access to technology itself. For many states, the knee-jerk response to some of these challenges is banning access or shutting down tech-based routine operations altogether—as we recently saw in Sri Lanka. Instead, states must co-opt technology and tech-actors, which allows for better surveillance of and enforcement against terrorist activities. Legislations and notifications will have limited influence in this new battle theatre. More technology, better technology and skillful deployment of technology against malign actors is the most potent option for all to embrace and one which most governments have failed to invest in.

States must co-opt technology and tech-actors, which allows for better surveillance of and enforcement against terrorist activities.

Second, the digital commons must witness the creation of new mechanisms and institutions for international cooperation on this vital issue. The challenges of terrorism are cross border — making debates held hostage by ‘regional’ or ‘international’, ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’ silos irrelevant. States and tech companies need to find new venues and forums to cooperate on these issues in an institutionalized manner, formally or informally.  The traditional distrust between governments and private actors is creating a cleavage that allows terror to flourish and succeed.

The digital commons must witness the creation of new mechanisms and institutions for international cooperation on this vital issue.

Third, technology companies must be more forthcoming about disclosures relating to terrorist activities on their platforms. The obsession with the performance of their shares on the bourses is perversely impacting the global effort to respond to terror. They must create internal mechanisms to share information with law enforcement on a real time basis. They must also publish regular public reports detailing the nature of terrorist activities they have identified, and steps taken to counter them. The reluctance of corporations to be transparent about the mishaps on their platforms and networks is a serious problem.

Technology companies must be more forthcoming about disclosures relating to terrorist activities on their platforms.

Fourth, states, for their part, must remember that tech is only a tool. It is not a substitute for real world and virtual policing. Often states attempt to undermine tech—for example through weaker encryption norms due to their naïve assessment that this would assist in their dispensation of duty. This only undermines utility and safety of technology for millions of benign users; while terrorist organizations will simply migrate to alternative platforms as witnessed in the recent past.

States…must remember that tech is only a tool. It is not a substitute for real world and virtual policing.

Fifth, localized capacity building both by state and tech firms is the need of the hour. While national intelligence organizations are certainly relevant, the first line of defense against tech-enabled terrorism will be local law enforcement. Unless these units are equipped with skills and technology, the terrorist will always remain a step ahead in an upcoming era of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) terrorism.

Localized capacity building both by state and tech firms is the need of the hour.

Finally, simultaneous investments in capacity for strategic communications by states and technology companies is a pivotal step. Unless good actors can combat the narrative appeal of radicalism and terror, most responses with be feeble and patchy. Either the states provide purpose and meaning to individuals, or radical groups will. The old methods of counter-terror will need to be dramatically upgraded and redesigned. The terrorists have developed a lethal cocktail of clicks and Kalashnikovs, even as citizens, states and other organizations, lag behind in recognizing and responding to this heady mix.

Simultaneous investments in capacity for strategic communications by states and technology companies is a pivotal step.

Any good policy response to tech-enabled terrorism must acknowledge that combating it requires an “all of society” approach. This first line of defense is always communities, no matter how the technology may change. Platforms for their part must work with them alongside states to increase awareness about this real and present danger and must transparently share their propositions that can help to balance the trifecta of growth, rights and security.

Revisiting Orientalism: Pandemic, politics, and the perceptions industry

Western media coverage of India’s handling of Covid-19 is yet another example of the West attempting to diminish the East.

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…And, above the packed and pestilential town, Death looked down.” – Rudyard Kipling


The reordering of global power relations with the emergence of the East has begun to alter the West’s imagination, narratives and processes of self-identification. One discernible and strengthening trend arising from this changing political landscape is the increasing deployment of reductive stereotypes in the Western media, reminiscent of the colonial era when the West appropriated to itself the “burden of civilising the savage” East.

This effort to devalue, deplore and defame the East is now a recurrent theme and, perhaps, is an attempt to define oneself as distinct from the “other” in these troubled times. More insidiously, it is also deployed as a method of control and as a projection of a superior agency for achieving definitive economic and political goals. Simply put, the West seeks to tower above all by diminishing the East.

With its increasing economic influence (the pandemic notwithstanding), greater presence in world affairs, and an emerging and louder identity (with passionate supporters and detractors), India’s actions and policies have come under close and often critical scrutiny in powerful sections of the liberal media in the Atlantic system. This, by itself, is both natural and unsurprising.

What is disturbing is the near universal, vicious and negative portrayal of a land that is proud of its democratic politics (just as many other nations are), with a loud, disruptive and often aggressive media, and mobilisations led by communities that have toppled governments and, sometimes, catalysed perverse outcomes. It is a far from perfect, largely low-income country, with its fragilities debated with gusto at home and judged at the hustings repeatedly. What is curious about the naked aggression of the liberal Western media is its visible conflation of the domestic debates of their land with those in foreign lands; their sense of loss of their old place and space and the externalisation of grievance onto the “outsider”; and, their weaponisation of differences in much the same manner as their far Right counterparts.

Many a time, this “reduced” portrayal of India or other lands may be just journalistic or editorial carelessness. When it does happen, it must be called out and now is a good time to engage with this trend. The distasteful grammar, and gloomy imagery that dominates Western coverage on India says less about the country under the scanner and more about the malaise within media organisations as they move from editorial and ownership structures of the past to the digital and decentralised realities of today. The ugly underbelly of a section of the media continues to reveal itself as it engages with India and its efforts in coping with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Over the last two months, organisations such as the BBCthe Atlantic , the Washington Post and the New York Times, among others, have run series of reductive commentaries on the state of India’s preparedness and its capacity to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. If we are being honest, they are being biased and blasé about it.

From alarmist commentaries (one report hypothesised that half of India could be infected!) and ridiculing the capacity and agency of the government, to deriving vicarious delight by focusing on well-known social inequities, their reporting has been “misery porn” with the spotlight being on India’s vulnerabilities and shortcomings in the fight against the pandemic. These are embellished through a cleverly selected presentation of events and facts; compelling images of poverty, denial, and deprivation; and, an overdose of virtue showboating.

The recurring portrayal of marginalised communities and migrants lacking economic, social, and political agency is presented as distinct from the values of esteem, equality and harmony, which form the bedrock of a “civilised” society. This narrative deliberately ignores the universal acceptance of these “ideals” to meet its singular objective — the perpetuation of a needless discourse of discord instead of a more worthwhile debate on the failure of globalisation and the extant economic models, something which is on stark display around the world.

This media narrative on India is perhaps not meant to only highlight inequality within the country because inequality is all prevalent around the world, more dazzlingly so in the West. It appears to be an attempt to distance a country and its mainstream from the civilised “self” which resides in the moral and emancipated world of publishers, editors and reporters. India and its large population are being painted as the proverbial “other” even as New York, the beacon of Western civilisation, is being scorched by the scourge.

Incidentally, and expectedly, many of these reports have been penned by native authors. This old trick affords plausible deniability to the publications against any allegations of White bias or racism, which is still resplendent in each of these reports. Nobel Laureate professor Amartya Sen and renowned pan-Africanist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon have argued how centuries of colonial subjugation and cultural infantalisation have left deep imprints on the self-image of the colonised, with the natives often viewing themselves and their cultures through the coloniser’s prism of prejudice. This phenomenon is one of colonialism’s most dehumanising byproducts and has now achieved viral potency alongside the pandemic.

Literary critic and linguist Namvar Singh, in his essay Decolonising the Indian Mind, alluded to this desperate urge that resides within Indian English-language writers to be accepted and understood by Western audiences as being part of their own identity continuum. The absurdity of the writings are, therefore, astounding. Just how absurd can be guessed from the assertion that a country with a per capita income of $2,000 must have the governance infrastructure and attributes similar to those with multiple times the resources and capacity — the leitmotif of much that is published on India. What is often forgotten in the “one village” discourse perpetuated by this class is that this village never was and never will be. This pandemic is the story of “millions of villages” seeking their own salvation as the “global ethic” promoted by the liberal media was the first victim of, and culprit-in-chief for, the pandemic and its heavy toll.

For a nation the size of a continent with many inherent challenges, India’s response has been bold and feeble at the same time, just as it has been universal and differentiated. While states such as Kerala and some others appear to have contained the crises well, other states with more complex and complicated politics are battling to keep this virus in check. There are shortcomings galore but most importantly, there is resolute intent across society and politics to fight the pandemic. States are adopting different models — unique to their local situation — drawing heavily from aspects as diverse as their specific cultural practices, topography, information systems and technology, along with government intervention.

Arguably, some states in India have outperformed some of the developed nations. A fair and balanced reportage should have presented these myriad experiences in combating the novel coronavirus, rather than just those narratives that build stereotypes and biases. In fact, the odd positive story out of India has the focused objective of establishing chaos and disorder as the norm — the outlier province with West-like predisposition, the snake-charmer and the bazaar magician, the bandar and the bandarlog, and other such notions lurk among words and between lines. This is reminiscent of the debates in 19th-century Britain with its praise of some quaint developments in India and its resolute determination to tame the East.

Celebrated political thinker Edward Said situated this impulse in the colonial domination of the non-West by the West, and the attendant perceptions of superiority that accompanied such domination. He argued that the West was able to manage, and even produce, the non-West by projecting itself as progressive, rational, civil and humanistic as opposed to the non-West. This reductive narrative was a purposeful one, created to morally justify the colonial enterprise and legitimise the civilising mission which was the “White man’s burden”.

This civilising purpose perpetuated through literature, popular culture and politics for over two centuries has not only informed and influenced the trajectory of colonial politics and popular Western imagination, but has also become embedded as the indisputable truth, forever colouring Western understanding of the Orient.

Starting with James Mill’s influential History of British India (1817) to Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (1927), diminished narratives on native agency, Professor Amartya Sen argues, have informed the views of generations of the Western intellectual and political elite, from Alexander Duff to Theodore Roosevelt and beyond. Works such as Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden, whom George Orwell called the “prophet of British Imperialism”, are considered reflective of this seemingly benign ethnocentric trajectory of colonial discourse.

French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas traces this bias to the West’s philosophical bearing, where identity is sought in the indurate logic of the self, rather than the expression of self in relation to difference. This predisposition manifests in a skewed representation of non-Western experiences. It is the cornerstone of the age-old identity debates that have troubled and defined human interactions. The sense of “Us versus Them”, or our superior agency versus theirs, proliferates the reports around Covid-19. The articles in the New York Times deploy a lack of empathy to create the “identity distance”. The Atlantic deploys lack of agency as a missing virtue, and social inequity defines the coverage of the BBC and the Washington Post in this instance. Unfortunately, the pandemic has a different tale to narrate.

A study of infection patterns in New York, for instance, presents vivid glimpses of elite depredations. The Black and marginalised communities have been significantly more affected than the rest, with one report assessing that Black Americans were thrice as likely to die from the infection than their White compatriots. The virus has indubitably driven a wedge between the economic haves and have-nots in the US, with significantly higher than average infections and deaths even among caregivers, who are people of colour, than their White counterparts. This isn’t very different from the Indian experience where the more impoverished are facing the fury of the pandemic.

Universally, and without exception, catastrophic events such as the raging pandemic tend to disproportionately affect the economically and socially marginalised more. In India, struggling migrants seek a path back to their hamlets. In the US, the rich and powerful escape to the Hamptons. This is an identity discourse of another variety that poses the same question for all humanity on the form and format of our economic agenda and priorities.

Colonial biases and stereotypes form an intractable part of the Western subconscious. However, the representation also needs to be viewed within a grander scheme. Beyond the articulation of the reductive occidental logic, it also offers a convenient moment for some to mobilise the newly dispossessed intelligentsia against the new nationalist urge that is shaping India’s political and economic discourse.

The story of the media reportage on India’s response to Covid-19 is, perhaps, not about the country’s efforts and its successes and failures. It is a narrative of perverse politics where the increasingly under threat elite opinion makers — the post-colonial custodians of virtue — are expressing (through their media) their contempt for those who do not see their path as either divine or preordained. This is political coverage, not one on the pandemic, and it has been scripted with the ink of exclusion.


This commentary originally appeared in Newslaundry.

Digital Epiphany? COVID19 and our Tech Futures

The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc globally, leaving governments and communities struggling to find a response. This is happening even as new technological and industrial transformations are altering societies around the world.

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Processes that were once subject to national jurisdictions – be it political conversations, trade and commerce, or national security considerations – are increasingly migrating to ungoverned digital spaces, creating what I have earlier called a “platform planet”. It is clear that the coronavirus will accelerate this process and more permanently fuse our technological and
social systems while encoding inequities and cleavages therein.

Most pertinent to this is the issue of access to digital technologies. Think of the pressure on governments today to deliver governance and services in the age of social distancing, the clamour from parents whose children cannot access educational opportunities, or demands from historically marginalized groups who may not be able to work remotely. Life, protection, and livelihood will all need to be guaranteed virtually and most capitals around the world will struggle to provide these.

Some positive transformations will be driven by technology companies looking to break new ground and compete for consumers among the millions of social and commercial interactions that will now be permanently online. Videoconferencing platforms, for instance, have emerged as the go-to technology keeping governments and businesses running even as social distancing is being practised. And still more change will be driven by governments adopting digital tools to carry out health surveillance measures or to enforce quarantines. Evolving debates and assumptions on user agency, privacy and data protection may be significantly altered in the year ahead.

Undoubtedly, the most important structural change will be in the form and format of the relationship between technology and society. Over the past two decades, there have been two fundamental notions that have shaped this ever-evolving relationship. The first, roughly corresponding to the first decade of the 21st century, was a near universal belief in the emancipatory potential of emerging technologies and a social willingness to accept new technologically induced disruptions. The second perspective, corresponding to the second decade, was the antithesis of the first – a “tech-lash” or scepticism about the role of emerging technologies in our social lives and a growing degree of suspicion about the intent and actions of “big tech” and “strong states”.

The coronavirus outbreak will demand a synthesis of these, and other, perspectives under extraordinarily compressed timelines. The many decisions that will be made over the coming year will either become entrenched or will reinforce certain pathways in the decade ahead. Technologies that society would have once expected greater regulatory scrutiny around –such as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare – will likely be fasttracked and deployed. Meanwhile, consumer technologies that are scaling rapidly, such as videoconferencing and fintech platforms, will face additional scrutiny from consumers and states as they become more utility-like in their deployment.

Technologies that society would have once expected greater regulatory scrutiny around –such as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare – will likely be fast-tracked and deployed.

As this process of synthesis unfolds over the coming year, the international community will be confronted with a new set of opportunities as well as risks. Perhaps the first and most visible risk emanates from a largely ungoverned digital public sphere. Indeed, this pandemic has also been accompanied by an “infodemic”, with misinformation and disinformation flooding most social media platforms, which for all practical purposes play the role of both traditional media and discussions rooms of yore that shaped public opinion.

Fake news alone, however, is not the only dimension of this risk. The response to it may be equally dangerous. The COVID-19 outbreak may end up creating stronger censorship regimes in an attempt to curb the spread of disinformation. Equally worrying is the power of technology platforms to mediate these spaces during times of crisis and the dangerous collaboration or confrontation brewing between technology companies and governments. For instance, certain technology platforms took down content by President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil because they deemed it spread disinformation. But should platforms have the ability to censor the content of a head of state? On the other hand, should they partner with governments and dilute freedom of expression through new measures that may outlast this pandemic?

second related risk is the data-sharing  practices that technology companies, health institutions and governments are adopting – with little oversight or accountability – to combat COVID-19. This trend will not only be about the data generated today. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely create a new battlefield, one that will be defined by the datasets generated by the fusion of our biological and digital worlds. Indeed, one set of technologies that were already being deployed rapidly before the virus outbreak were those related to genomics. The practices around genetic privacy – and the institutions that manage them – in the year ahead may well create new and unexpected risks to our fundamental rights as unique living beings.

third risk likely to challenge our technological futures are efforts to undermine the integrity of the cyber realm. While most nations remain worried about threats to critical infrastructure (the United Nations has already called for a digital ceasefire) the COVID-19 outbreak will also exacerbate “petty” cyber-crimes. These are minor cyber incidences; those that may not pose systemic national security threats but will affect the financial and social lives of individuals dramatically. The sudden uptick in COVID-related phishing scams, telemedicine scams and attacks on medical institutions all point in this direction. Trust in technology will be undermined at a time when the digital is the ether for globalization to survive.

The fourth risk is of individuals being permanently left behind as the process of digitalization continues to accelerate. Inequality has been the defining political zeitgeist of our generation – one that digital technologies have often accentuated. In countries without full or robust access to the internet, citizens are suffering from multidimensional socio-economic challenges as the pandemic snatches away their access to essential public goods.

But the challenge goes beyond this. Just as individuals are beginning to learn that not all work requires formal office spaces, businesses may well realize that not all operations require humans. The rapid adoption of AI and robotics energized amid the pandemic could accelerate a process that governments and policy-makers have been concerned about for years – technology-induced unemployment.

The final risk could end up being a product of how states actually respond to these various challenges amid a rapidly digitizing global society. No two societies are the same – they are defined by different political values, social practices and economic priorities. With COVID-19 forcing more of our social lives, business operations and governance online, the race to infuse the global digital world with a particular set of values and technological standards will only accelerate. Digital “code wars” may well be this century’s ideological confrontation that may partition the world in the end.

Think of the UN, the centrepiece of the liberal international order, partnering with Tencent, the digital champion of a vast surveillance state, to conduct its remote work operations. This has become a cause for concern for many countries. Reports indicate that the UN is already backtracking from its decision under pressure from human rights groups and democratic nations. Indeed, the varied digital societies that are emerging may fuel loud “geotechnological” competition.

That said, policy-makers may also see in the COVID-19 crisis an opportunity to reform political and administrative practices that were earlier hobbled by legacy institutional constraints. The most obvious, perhaps, is the accelerated adoption of what the UN calls “digital public goods”. These are the common digital “railroads”, which act as force multipliers for a range of business and governance operations.

For instance, India’s Digital ID system has helped the country navigate the pandemic by ensuring cash transfers and digital payments for a range of essential goods. The demand for similar architectures has been growing around the world. Singapore had already signed an MoU with the Indian government, even before the virus outbreak, to develop such a system. Similarly, Google has cited India’s digital payments infrastructure to call on the Federal Reserve to enable similar innovations in the US. These trends could see universal strengthening at this time.

This moment offers an opportunity for states to respond to the needs of a growing global informal workforce. The informal labour force and the “gig economy” workforce need new systems of social protection. The absence of this has placed them at great risk and at the frontline of this pandemic. These political reforms may not be ignored much longer. The idea of a universal basic income – a measure that is supported both by the Pope and The Financial Times – could also find favour and catalyse a new dimension for the future of work.

Perhaps the most significant opportunity will be for states and individuals to realize the potential of a truly global digital society. Responding to COVID-19 has compelled governments and communities to share sporadic information, some best practices and critical technologies rapidly. Consider for, instance, a rapidly growing community of entrepreneurs sharing opensource 3D printing designs for ventilators. Perhaps civil society organizations and policymakers can use the COVID-19 moment to push for new pipelines that will enable the transfer of technologies and innovations and encourage them to rethink rigid intellectual property regimes, which hindered this earlier.

Perhaps the most significant opportunity will be for states and individuals to realize the potential of a truly global digital society. Responding to COVID-19 has compelled governments and communities to share sporadic information, some best practices and critical technologies rapidly

Over a century ago, when individuals were isolating themselves amidst a far deadlier Spanish Flu, many (primarily Americans) turned to the telephone to stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues. Of course, it was a nascent technology at the time and services promptly broke down because of the rapid rise in demand. But rather than crippling the industry and the technology forever, the Spanish Flu only served to underscore how essential it was to modern society. Over a century later, it is clear that the telephone was instrumental in shaping our global village.

We are at a similar junction today. And decades later, historians may well scrutinize the decisions made in the year ahead when studying how the digital shaped individuals, communities, nations and the world they inherited.


This essay originally appeared in World Economic Forum.

In the lockdown, a breath of fresh air

An urgent warning comes from a Harvard University study (bit.ly/3dthqiv), which establishes a correlation between long-term exposure to air pollution and Covid-19 mortality. The study finds that people living in polluted cities are more likely to have compromised respiratory, cardiac and other systems — and, therefore, are more vulnerable to Covid-19.

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One of the few positive spin-offs of the ongoing nationwide lockdown to combat Covid-19 has been a dramatic reduction in air pollution. Recent Nasa data reveals that air pollution in north India has dropped to a 20-year low. In Delhi, the levels of harmful microscopic particulate matter, PM 2.5, plunged after the lockdown began — falling from 91 mg per cubic metre (mg/m3) on March 20, to 26 mg/m3on March 27.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) released by vehicles and power plants also saw a significant fall of 71% during the period. The air in Delhi is now clear, the skies are blue, and we can hear birdsong again on the boulevards.

Unfortunately, these are but temporary gains, and should not distract us from the dangers of air pollution.

An urgent warning comes from a Harvard University study (bit.ly/3dthqiv), which establishes a correlation between long-term exposure to air pollution and Covid-19 mortality. The study finds that people living in polluted cities are more likely to have compromised respiratory, cardiac and other systems — and, therefore, are more vulnerable to Covid-19.

We should be very worried because India has 21of the 30 most polluted cities in the world. Air quality in some of our cities is 10 times over the safe limits recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and, as per some estimates, air pollution claims more than one million lives each year.

Therefore, even as India flattens the infection curve, addressing the air pollution problem should continue to be a high priority for all policymakers. Today’s cerulean skies remind us that clean air and the right to breathe must be available to all citizens. And if India were to achieve this, there will be huge collateral benefits. We would not only become much more globally competitive, but we could also be well on our way to exceeding our climate ambitions outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

There are many ways in which an economic revival package can get India to this Green Frontier. For instance, new investments could be directed towards renewable energy, with larger allocations and subsidies to initiatives like the National Solar Mission. We could adhere to deadlines for the Bharat Stage 4 standards and accelerate timelines and infrastructure investments for electric vehicle (EV) adoption.

Large electric battery factories could be established to enable localised energy storage solutions. Bailouts and incentives to the auto, aviation and construction sectors could encourage green transitions and clean air ambitions. The Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) in the residential sector could be enforced and a 2011policy relating to energy efficiency in MSME clusters could be integrated with the fiscal support to this sector.

Global experience suggests that crises create political opportunities for embracing change. After the 2008 global financial crisis, China spent nearly a third of its $568 billion stimulus towards projects that addressed environmental goals. China has since become a global leader in solar, wind and hydropower markets.

Britain and Germany also undertook green transformations post 2008 crisis. Similarly, India could use this Covid-19 crisis to undertake a far-reaching green revival.

We will find support. After the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a renewed focus on mega black and white swan shocks that can lead to immense loss of lives and destroy trillions of dollars of economic output. It is now much easier to convince policymakers, bankers and investors that awarming climate may well be the single-biggest macro shock the world will have to face. Green revival packages are bound to emerge around the world and global finance will inevitably align to this endeavour.

India is already the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Even optimistic predictions suggest that our emissions will nearly double in the next decade or so. A green revival package could be designed to ensure that India’s post-Covid economic resurgence becomes a key contributor in mitigating global emissions. It must be branded as the single-most important initiative for the world to meet and exceed Paris Agreement goals.

This will also give India more leverage in influencing the global financial community, and compel them to more pragmatically price risk, transparently rate creditworthiness, and bring down regulatory barriers that restrict the flow of capital to green projects in the developing world.

The battle for clean air requires structural reforms across multiple sectors, institutions and processes.

Public and private funds need to be redirected to green investments.

While temporary reductions in noxious emissions are certainly a huge relief, they are not the panacea for a country that has the onerous task of becoming the first $5 trillion economy in a carbon-constrained world. And, we must do this without gasping for breath.


This commentary originally appeared in Economic Times.

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.