Saturday, May 30, 2020

Indian Migrant crisis – an avertable failure of business, government and society ?

The world has been fascinated by stories of migrant workers caught in the unforeseen COVID-lockdown in India. After Indian government announced a drastic country-wide lockdown on 24th March, stories of the plight of migrant workers began making the rounds.

Netizens around the globe were captivated by the plight of workers through pictures – thousand s of migrants marching on desolated highways with a few personal belongings and toddlers in tow. Indians were appalled when foreigners like Ivanka Trump tweeted pictures of the crisis - the picture of a migrant girl cycling thousands of kilometers with an ailing father.

We were also shocked but helpless to read about dozens of tired migrants being mowed down by a speeding train. (link) The plight of migrant workers was front-and-center during the initial phases of lockdown in India.

Failure of business, government and society

There is a lot of hand wringing and finger pointing about this crisis from politicians of different stripes and government officials. Much of it is attributed to the failure of government and bureaucracy; some of it justified. This was after all an unintended consequence of lockdown intended to save scores of Indians from the impending pandemic. What went unsaid was the role of business leaders and commercial enterprises in contributing to this fiasco.

 © Danish Siddiqui | Credit: REUTERS

The other day, I was zooming with a friend who owns a mid-sized steel rolling mill near Jaipur in Rajasthan. He was lamenting over the plans for reopening his plant that was challenging since most of his workers – migrants from Bihar – had returned back ‘home’ and were reluctant to come back to work.

When I casually asked why he couldn’t hold them back during the lockdown, he admitted that he had stopped paying them after the plant shut in March. Afterall he had a business to run and couldn’t pay workers when he wasn’t generating revenue. What went unsaid was the fact that his business generated tremendous profit margins during normal times, that was sufficient for him to tide over this crisis easily.

Businesses have been unwilling or unable to pay workers during the extended lockdown. This is a story that has been amplified across urban India millions of times, aggregating to a humanitarian crisis.

Commerce: at the intersection of Business and good Governance

This crisis has also exposed the dark underbelly of the Indian growth story – shiny new gated apartment complexes, malls, flyovers and Metros are being built by legions of faceless migrant workers – many from improvised states of Bihar, UP and North East who migrated to urban metropolis en masse.

These undocumented daily wage earners hired and managed by subcontractors and agents live in shanties hoping to save enough and eventually return back home. The construction companies, builders and factories pay these middlemen a tidy sum to source and manage these workers from other parts of the country.

The builders and industrialists also lobby governments to ensure a laissez faire hire-and-fire policy and scant social security for migrant workers. Creative hiring under layers of sub-contractors ensures diluted worker benefits and protections.

During past few months when images of mass migrations began surfacing, there were large debates on the ineptitude of the government and the lack of preparedness in addressing this humanitarian crisis. There was a grain of truth to this as the government machinery was totally unprepared. To be fair, the Prime Minister, while announcing the lockdown had urged businesses not to withhold worker wages. Such an appeal by the government leader didn’t come with a teeth of enforcement. Needless to say, the appeal was totally disregarded by business leaders – including my friend – who were focused on self-preservation. Such is the nature of commercial enterprise. 

Commerce beyond lockdown

Large hearted philanthropists from across the country have been announcing donations to help PMCARES and other charities. The Digirati and media has been tracking and applauding the donations, conveniently forgetting the root cause of this crisis. 

Forget donating to PMCARES and other crisis funds, one wonders if things would have turned out different if business enterprises had just paid their workers and assured them of normalcy during surreal times? Things may have been different as we look at the world beyond lockdown; businesses leaders – like my friend – wouldn’t be out struggling for workers to restart their operations.  

As we look at the green shoots of economic activity looking past the crisis, it may also be worth reflecting on the role of benevolent business practices. Pillars of commerce are dispassionately focused on numbers – topline and bottomline, profit and loss – but businesses are also run by humans. Perhaps business leaders should be taking a page out of noted industrialist Ratan Tata’s playbook. At the end of his entrepreneurial life, The Economist obituary (link) quoted the essence of Tata’s management philosophy "I want to be able to go to bed at night and say that I haven't hurt anybody."

Monday, May 11, 2020

When will the Covid-19 pandemic end? Looking at life beyond lockdown

With nearly half of mankind under some form of government-imposed lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, the end of the Coronavirus Pandemic seems to be front and center in our minds. Almost all of us are struggling with answers to questions like “When will the Covid-19 pandemic end? “how will this end?” and “when will life get back to normal?”

In a recent NYT Article, Dr. Jeremy Greene, a historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins explains that “pandemics typically have two types of endings: the medical, which occurs when the incidence and death rates plummet, and the social, when the epidemic of fear about the disease wanes.”
When people ask, ‘When will this end?,’ they are asking about the social ending. One can argue that we are already seeing the social ending to the Covid-19 pandemic saga.

New-normal: Social Distancing and telecommuting at work

During the past few months, nearly all economic activities around the globe came to an abrupt standstill for weeks on end as leaders began reacting to the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic across the globe.

Business leaders, who quickly moved to shutter operations in line with national and local lockdown regulations, began watching the unrolling of the restrictions in parts of the world with reduced cases of COVID-19.  In many organizations, especially in the technology sector, telecommuting and work-from-home became the norm.

Company-men – self included – were quick begin parroting phrases like ‘new normal,’ surreal, once-in-a-generation and unprecedented times while trying to come to grips with the uncertainty of the pandemic.

What does end-of-lockdown feel? Not very different

By all accounts, the social ending to the lockdowns and restrictions isn’t going to be as dramatic or abrupt as the start. For one, people are willing and ready for such a change; and many are yearning to go back to life as it was.

The other day, I was in a zoom session with a colleague from China that was among the first nations to rollback lockdown restrictions. After weeks of working from home, employees there are back to work wearing masks, learning to live with additional social distancing norms and ubiquitous temperature checks at offices and all public places.

While people have begun to get back to work, and factories and manufacturing have resumed, the gears of the broader economy are slower in turning forward. Leaders around the globe are closely watching the Chinese blueprint to either follow along or modify as their situations dictate.

Onward to ‘new normal’ or back to old-normal?

After two consecutive nationwide lockdowns spanning one-and-half months, the Indian government announced a slow easing of the curbs with a ‘partial’ lifting of lockdown last week. By the end of the week, it felt like a giant had woken from its slumber. One can already see a few minor traffic jams accompanied by honking on roads by restless motorists. Shops have started opening, and it almost feels like ‘social distancing’ is a thing of the past. In the narrow grocery aisles masked-customers are back to shoving each other while selecting vegetables and fruits; the six-feet-rule be damned.

While it was jarring to see the American President abruptly rollback federal restrictions, leaving state governors to work through a hodgepodge of local regulations, he doesn’t seem to be alone.  After reacting strongly to address the outbreak of pandemic, government leaders around the world seem to be certain of one thing: they cannot indefinitely lockdown societies while awaiting a vaccine for Coronavirus, or for the death rates to plummet.

Commerce, just like life itself, must go on

States and cities around the world that have slowly lifted lockdown bans are beginning to see economic activity resume. While multinationals and large companies are being cautious in re-starting operations, small businesses are already rolling up their shutters.

Government officials are beginning to parrot how “people must learn to live with the virus” while following prevention guidelines.” Just as the crisis-management and pandemic-preparedness of governments across the globe was uneven, the way individual communities around the globe move forward after lockdowns is going to be asymmetrical.

With governments around the world finally abdicating their role in combating this deadly virus, the ‘end’ of the Covid-19 pandemic is going to be a bit of an anti-climax. And in a way, the much awaited new-normal may not look or feel very different. At least not in the short term.