Open Letter to PM
Hon’ble Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji,
India is passing through one of the most dreadful phases in its 73 years of history, with the pandemic having a stranglehold over the nation.
And along with the need to gain control over our health crisis, we need to repair one more broken element: Trust.
The famous Israeli historian, author and professor, Yuval Noah Harari tweeted on March 12, 2020, “To defeat epidemics we need to trust science and countries need to trust each other. Irresponsible politicians undermined this trust. We need to regain it. You can’t defeat a pandemic with propaganda and isolation. The real antidote is scientific knowledge and global cooperation.”
In order that we take remedial action towards our health and trust deficit, I recommend the following:
- The formation of National Taskforces
- Strengthening the bureaucracy
- Management of elections
1. The formation of National Taskforces
I recommend the formation of National Taskforces for the following:
All the three taskforces should have members of the industry and bureaucracy with an experienced private sector professional as the Chair of the taskforce.
National Taskforce for Vaccination:
If Vaccination is the only protection, we will need to ramp up production. Once we are able to create a capacity to cover our population, as we ramp up production, we will need to conduct a drive for vaccination to deal with reluctance and negligence. We could institute a ruling, with the consent of all parties, that only those vaccinated should be able to qualify for benefits from the government. The Aadhar card can effectively help the government control this and incentivise vaccination. All Direct Benefit Transfers/MNREGA benefits/Aayush benefits/etc, can be linked to vaccination as a condition. With the possibility of a third wave, vaccination will be a necessary condition for economy to recover seamlessly without major disruptions. Booster shots and annual vaccinations would be necessary and therefore a regular system of keeping track of vaccination would be essential. Conferences, exhibitions, movies, restaurants, entertainment parks, sporting events will permit only those who are vaccinated and therefore safe for others. Travel and immigration requirements will have vaccination as a compulsory requirement.
The National Taskforce for Vaccination should comprise of bureaucrats who have had the experience of vaccination roll outs during their past tenures, those who have had experience with the launch of MNREGA/Aayush schemes, and those from the private sector who have an experience of the pharmaceutical distribution system and hospital networks in India. The taskforce should be asked to submit their report within 15 days and appoint a Mission Director for this purpose. The Mission Director should be of the rank of a Joint Secretary, from the private sector.
National Taskforce for Healthcare Infrastructure
According to various reports, the US spends close to 18 per cent of its GDP on healthcare compared to less than just 4 per cent of GDP by India. The average expenditure per capita in the US is more than $10,000 in the US and less than $100 in India. Our healthcare infrastructure is woefully short and given the virulence of this pandemic the cracks in this deficit have caused it to implode. In order to ramp this up in a short span of time, one will have to rely on an out-of-the-box approach for which a clear mandate must be given to an empowered taskforce. Today, construction technologies are advanced, and one can construct a 500-bed hospital in 30 days using modular construction. If land available with PSUs can be deployed for this purpose, we can spring up hospitals within cities in a few months. A new category of ‘trainee doctors’ can be created by bringing in final year students from medical colleges or even retired medical officers from the defence forces and paying them handsomely. The beleaguered hospitality industry and the real estate industry can be invited to set up healthcare infrastructure on a BOT basis on government-owned land, to be transferred back to the government after a 10-year BOT period for instance. Our medical proficiencies are well known, and medical tourism can revive for sustainability. The pandemic is here to stay for some time, and we will need preparedness to tackle this on a continuous basis from hereon. While this maybe useful for the short term, a longer-term strategy can be drawn up by the National Taskforce, which could consist of CEOs of construction companies, real estate companies, healthcare or hospital enterprises along with bureaucrats who have been involved in affordable housing and from those involved in smart cities and AMRUT.
National Taskforce for Economy
The economy needs to be nursed back with some sectors needing intensive care. While the large companies can look after themselves, it is the SMEs and MSMEs that need intensive care. Liquidity is being adequately provided by the RBI at select junctures, but several businesses are struggling for survival. Corporate taxes have been brought down but partnerships which are more suited for smaller businesses are still subject to a higher tax rate. ‘Ease of doing business’ is, in practice, not easeful enough to attract foreign investment, which is why we had to extend the Productivity Linked Incentive scheme in several sectors. But the root cause of why foreign investment is shying away is not being addressed. Why is private capital shy? All through for the last seven years private capital has remained shy. Why? The Economic Survey for 2020-21 shows that gross fixed capital formation in the private sector never really recovered from its peak of 27.2% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2011-12, thereafter hovering at 21-22% every year from 2015-16 to 2018-19. Despite the CEO meetings held by PMO that have been held annually, where the private sector has provided suggestions, why have they not risen up to the occasion? So, while we may well extend the PLI scheme, we need to rectify the reasons for averseness of private capital. We have competitive advantages in some sectors that need to be supported so that we have a global leadership in those areas. If despite being the world’s largest producer of vaccines, we did not support this industry to rise to the occasion during the pandemic, we are indeed suffering due to a flawed structure. The NPA mess that you inherited from the previous regimes is soon set to compound. The economy is likely to see a tsunami of personal and partnership insolvencies. Just like the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) has been brought in to help resolve complicated cases of debt resolution, we should bring about a Personal Insolvency Law, which determines in a standard manner how a person or a partnership can be declared insolvent. The cases for such bankruptcies are likely to increase in the coming years and if there is no proper legal way of obtaining a resolution, people will resort to unethical ways, causing law and order situations and a general sense of dissatisfaction in society.
The divestment target must not be compromised upon because that is the only way we can build value by increasing accountability, and thereby, monetise public sector enterprises. The pandemic has, in fact, exacerbated the need for enhancing revenues to the government to withstand ballooning deficits. If bankrupt companies like Satyam, IL&FS, etc, can be resuscitated by appointing experts at the helm, our economy can do with experts who can watch over it and collaborate with the Ministry of Finance in nursing it back to health. The Taskforce could involve industrialists like Anand Mahindra, Rahul Bajaj and bankers like Aditya Puri, Rajnish Kumar and people like Nandan Nilekani or Narayan Murthy along with economists and representatives from SMEs. This could also have regional and sectoral sub-committees to ensure that voices of all segments are heard before putting forth a proposal.
2. Strengthening the bureaucracy
On a longer perspective, the three areas that are incapacitating the government bureaucracy such that they are fighting with their hands tied are: The area of procurement; followed by the arbitrariness with which sudden transfers are effected by political leaders; and finally, a lack of appreciation by meritocracy. All these also suffer from a lack of ‘trust’. Procurement decisions have the highest probability of being viewed suspiciously. The cost of incapacitating our bureaucracy is much more than the total loss of revenue due to the actual corruption, if any, that may take place. The law should be amended to provide for the complainant to prove that the decision the accused officer took was indeed for personal gratification at a forum like a Lokpal instead of clogging the already clogged courts. Be it selection of the Vaccination vendor or its pricing or selecting a vendor and sanctioning a contract for Railways or Roads and highways, the decision maker is, in all probability, likely to be hauled up by the Central Vigilance Commission. The fear of this witch-hunt hovers, haunts and then deters and delays the decision, causing financial and in the case of vaccination during a pandemic, human losses. If an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) has been followed for a procurement process, then there should not be any such fear of retribution. The Indian Government only placed orders for vaccination in January 2021, while countries like the UK, Canada, the EU and the US placed orders on a ‘yet to be produced’ vaccine way back between May and September 2020! This decision-making process of ordering a product which is yet to be produced and paying an advance for it has given these countries a head start in economic recovery, while the delay in our case may subject our country to yet another mutation of the virus. The systems in these countries allow their officers to get a clearance for making such decisions. Further, officers who are conducting themselves by following SOPs and are providing quick decision-making, should be awarded with promotions and premium postings. Several times, bureaucrats who have performed well and are just beginning to get recognised, are transferred unceremoniously to completely unrelated sectors. A bank of talented bureaucrats is just not regarded as an asset. There have been bureaucrats who have handled the vaccination programmes earlier who have experience in these roll out programmes, but unfortunately their experience is relegated to making comments on national television. Not holding people responsible for their failures too is frustrating. The failure in handling the health crisis needs to be owned up by the Health Ministry.
3. Management of elections
Prime Minister, your cabinet has been given roles to administer various ministries. However, we see that you are very often the face of election campaigns in state and assembly elections. When you take on state adversaries and other opponents during election battles, we also see that during these times you are not playing the role of a ‘Prime Minister’ but that of your party’s ambassador. Even the Home Minister is handling the election battle strategies and conducting rallies and propaganda. This is not fair to the citizens of the country who have entrusted their future to your leadership and your choice of the cabinet. Elections need to be fought by leaders of the respective parties only and people engaged deeply in these exercises should take a ‘leave of absence’ in case they are necessary to be utilised for the party’s purpose by handing over the reins of control and responsibility to an able nominee. As you would have seen very well that the senior most people of the cabinet had their eyes completely focused on the election battle while the health crisis grew to these alarming proportions. You have been an advocate of holding simultaneous national and state elections. By introducing this discipline, you will be able to save the country from this regular diversion that has severe cost implications, both, in terms of opportunity lost and the loss in momentum.
As we have done in the past, we will overcome this crisis; however, we would have paid a very high cost. One, we may have pushed the 273 million Indians who had reportedly crossed the poverty line between 2005 to 2015, back to misery. Two, we would have pushed our economic prowess back by a decade; this will be reflected in the strength of our currency, our ability to negotiate trade deals in time to come, our ratings, our ability to attract foreign direct investment (FDI), our ability to retain and attract innovative talent, and therefore, our future. Prime Minister, it is time to collaborate and cooperate. It is time to co-found than confound.
Quoting Professor Yuval Noah Harari again, “Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”
Here is wishing that you listen and action these ideas with expert advice, and help us recover from this crisis stronger than ever.