India will be the most preferred investment destination - PM Modi
It’s been seven months since India launched its fight against coronavirus through the first lockdown in March. What’s your assessment on how we have fared?
I am sure we all agree that this virus is something unknown, nothing like what has happened earlier in the past. So, while tackling this new unknown enemy, our response also evolves.
I am no health expert but my assessment is based on numbers. I think we should assess our coronavirus fight against the metric of of how many lives we are able to save.
The virus is proving to be very fickle. At one time, some places like Gujarat were seen as hot spots while the situation seemed to be under control in Kerala, Karnataka etc. After a few months, things have improved in Gujarat but turning for the worse in Kerala.
This is why I feel there is no room for complacency. I stressed the same in my recent message to the nation on October 20 that the only way forward is to take precautions such as wearing mask, hand washing and social distancing because ‘Jab tak dawai nahin, tab tak dhilai nahin.’
But has it broadly panned out the way you expected or have you had to improvise and innovate constantly?
We decided to be proactive and introduce a timely nationwide lockdown. When we introduced a lockdown, the total number of cases was in a few hundreds, unlike many countries that adopted a lockdown when the cases were in the thousands. We imposed lockdown at a very critical point in the pandemic trajectory.
We not only got the broad timing of various phases of lockdown right, we also got the unlock process right and much of our economy is also coming back on track. The data for August and September indicates that.
India has taken a science-driven approach in response to Covid-19 pandemic in the country. Such an approach proved beneficial.
Studies now show that this response helped avoiding a situation which could have led to rapid spread of the virus with many more deaths. In addition to the timely lockdown, India was among the first countries to mandate wearing of masks, use a contact-tracing app and deploy rapid antigen tests.
For a pandemic of this dimension, it would not have been possible to manage if the country was not united. The entire country stood together to fight this virus. The Covid warriors, who are our frontline healthcare workers, knowing well the threat to their life, fought for this country.
What’s your biggest learning?
One positive learning in the past few months has been the significance of delivery mechanisms that reach the last mile. Much of this delivery mechanism was built in the first term of our government and it has helped us immensely in facing this once-in-a-century pandemic. I will give just two examples.First, through the Direct Benefit Transfer regime, we were able to transfer cash straight to the bank accounts of millions of people almost instantly. This entire infrastructure to enable this was built in the last six years. Earlier, even in relatively smaller natural calamities, relief did not reach the poor and there was massive corruption. But we were able to reach relief on a massive scale to people in a very short time, without any complaints of corruption. That is the power of technology in governance. To give a contrast, perhaps you could enlighten your readers on how India fared during the smallpox epidemic in the 1970s.
And second, the behavioural change that a billion-plus people had adapted to in such a short span of time — wearing masks and maintaining social distance — is a world model of public participation without any coercive enforcement.
Recent trends suggest a bending of the curve both in active cases and fatalities, raising hopes that the worst may be behind us. Do you also share this view, based on data available with the government?
This is a new virus. Countries which had initially controlled the outbreak are now reporting a resurgence.
The geographical spread of India, population density, the regular social gatherings must be kept in mind when we look at these numbers and seek to compare with others. Many of our states are larger than countries.
I feel that our response should be focused on increasing capabilities to handle the situation, make people more aware, create more facilities etc in keeping with the dictum ‘Hope for the best but prepare for the worst’.
And what was the economic strategy?
Saving lives was not limited to saving lives from Covid-19. It was also about providing enough food and essentials to the poor. Even when most of the experts and newspapers were asking the government to release an economic package for the corporate sector, our focus was to save lives among the vulnerable populations. We first announced PM Garib Kalyan package to alleviate the suffering of the poor people, the migrants, farmers.
One special insight and understanding that came early to us was that the agriculture sector is one where the rule of social distancing can be more naturally maintained without compromising on productivity. So, we allowed agriculture activities almost from the very start. And we all see the results today with this sector doing exceptionally well despite so many months of disruption.
Record distribution of foodgrain, Shramik Special trains and proactive procurement were undertaken for both the immediate and medium-term needs of the people.
And what about labour reforms?
These reforms are very pro-worker. They are now entitled to all benefits and social security even if hired for fixed term. The labour reforms will help create significant employment while also protecting the workerby ensuring minimum wage reforms, provision for social security for workers in the informal sector, and minimising government interference. It will ensure timely payment of wages and give priority to occupational safety of the workers, thus contributing to a better working environment.
India has emerged as a major producer of PPE and masks. Pharma has emerged as a strategic sector. Going forward, how do you strengthen our advantage in this area?
We realised at the start of the pandemic that we were dependent on imports for PPEs. The problem aggravated after countries imposed lockdowns, which affected manufacturing, resulting in disruption of global supply chains. This essentially meant that the country was to quickly think of ways to become self-reliant in the time of crisis.
India lived up to its name of being the Pharmacy of the World in the last few months, supplying drugs and medical equipment to around 150 countries. The Indian pharma sector has a size of about $38 billion. To strengthen this advantage, government has approved an outlay of 14000 crore for production of medical devices and active pharmaceutical ingredients. Bulk drug parks and medical devices parks are being created for attaining global leadership position.
A vaccine is likely to become available next year. Is there some thinking on distribution and priorities in terms of who will be vaccinated?
First and foremost, I would like to assure the nation that, as and when a vaccine becomes available, everyone will be vaccinated. None will be left behind. Of course, initially we may focus on protecting the most vulnerable and the frontline workers. A National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 Vaccine has been constituted to chart the way forward.
So what if we could not move at the desired pace this year due to the pandemic! We will try and run faster in the next year to make up for the loss. Nothing great ever gets done if we get deterred by obstacles in our path. By not aspiring, we guarantee failure. India is the third largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity.
We want India to become the third largest in terms of current US dollar prices as well. The $5 trillion target will help us achieve that.
Also, our government has a track record of meeting our targets. We met the rural sanitation target before the deadline, we met the village electrification target before the deadline, we met the 8 crore Ujjwala connections target too well before the deadline. So, going by our track record and continuing reforms, people also have confidence in our abilities to reach the target.