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The second wave of the coronavirus pandemic may have been severe, but according to billionaire Ajay Piramal, chairman of Piramal Group and one of India Inc.’s leading voices, if everyone gets together to fight it, the country can succeed just as in the first wave. Excerpts from Piramal’s fireside chat at the Mint India Investment Summit with Rajat Gupta, senior partner, McKinsey & Co. :

What difference are you seeing on the ground between the first and second phase of the pandemic?

I think the biggest difference I find from last year is, this time, it is much more a rural phenomenon. That is where the health infrastructure is very weak. Also, in many people at these places, there is vaccine hesitancy, which is a concern. But I think though in the first phase there were also challenges like migrant labour crisis, when people got together at all levels, whether it was government, the NGOs, the volunteer groups, we could face the crisis and I am hoping we can do that this year too.

In the context of the second wave, what do you expect the impact on the economy and the path to recovery?

If somebody had asked me this last year, I would have painted a very gloomy picture. But the experience we had last time was very different and we have learned a lot from last year’s crisis. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) managed the economy very well over the last 12 months, and if we continue on that path, we will be in a stronger position. India’s strong forex position, low current account deficit, and strength to attract foreign investments and robust collections from taxation make me more optimistic about the future than I was last year.

The year 2020 was a very hectic deal-making year for you. What is the secret sauce of your success?

I think in times like these, liquidity is king. One needs to ensure there is enough liquidity and strength, then this is the time when you can actually do both acquisition and organic growth better than what we can normally do. Last fiscal, we sold a 20% stake in the pharma business for 3,523.40 crore. So this is the combination, exiting where you get full value and then investing in something which we believe has a greater potential in the future. So, in June 2020, we acquired G&W Laboratories Inc.’s solid oral dosage drug product manufacturing facility at Sellersville in the US. In October 2020, we acquired Navin Fluorine International Ltd, a manufacturer of specialty fluorochemicals and in March 2021, we acquired Hemmo Pharma, manufacturers of peptide APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredient). This March, the Reserve Bank cleared our insolvency resolution to acquire the bankrupt mortgage financier Dewan Housing Finance Corp. Ltd (DHFL). When we looked at DHFL in 2019, it was at a significantly higher value than it was available today. However, we could do that only as we generated cash from selling one other asset.

The pandemic has forced us to change our ways of working. How much of that do you think is here to stay?

I don’t expect people to work from the office all the time. But that does not mean you can totally work from home and need not go to the office. Sometimes, I personally feel that I miss the personal contact and the emotion in all the meetings held virtually. Though technology is making people more productive, we are all human beings and creatures of emotions. We want relationships. I personally miss that.

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