Home/ News / India/  ‘Increase in covid cases should not set alarm bells ringing’

NEW DELHI : India’s tally of coronavirus cases has crossed that of China, the epicentre of the disease, putting pressure on the country’s strategic response to the pandemic that includes a pressing need for socioeconomic reforms. Amitabh Kant, chief executive officer of NITI Aayog, who is also heading one of the empowered committees on covid-19, spoke about how India is reforming its policies to tap opportunities in the post-covid world and brushing aside an alarmist approach in dealing with the crisis. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Covid-19 cases are rising though India is under the third phase of the lockdown? How do you see the situation?

Only an increase in positive cases should not set the alarm bells ringing. This number has to be seen in consonance with the fatality and recovery rates. Our fatality rate is 1 per million, whereas in the US it is 211 per million. Our recovery rate is also constantly improving and is now around 35%. We have to recognize that this virus will stay with us till a vaccine is rolled out and as long as we are able to keep our fatalities low and recoveries high, we will continue to win this battle on a daily basis. The lockdown has been extremely effective. If we had not initiated the lockdown, we would crossed have 1 million cases on 25 April itself. We may have already had our peak. We may be seeing it now or may see it later. However, what really matters is not the total number of positive cases but the mortality rates and recovery rates and, so far, we are faring very well on those numbers.

What should be the way forward after the lockdown?

How the situation evolves after the lockdown will be the result of the collective action of both the people and the government. A hyper-localization strategy would be of help. The hotspots will have to be aggressively contained and monitored and testing will have to be further ramped up in these areas. For the next few months, people must avoid non-essential activities such as celebrating festivals and other social gatherings, which increase the risk to themselves and others. The main priority for the government should be to effectively hyper-localize and work with the states to address the situation. This crisis has shown us the best side of cooperative federalism with the Centre and states collectively working to address the situation. In terms of peak, there are different models with different predictions but each country is different and the situation is dynamic.

How is the government dealing with unintended consequences of reverse migration of labourers?

The states are undertaking remarkable efforts by sending those who return to the states into quarantine. In this manner, those who show symptoms can be isolated and treated if they require medical attention while the rest can be allowed to go to their villages. The issue of reverse migration is taking place because of the lack of economic opportunities that have resulted from the lockdown. The government has now started calibrated opening, which will provide the impetus for resuming economic activities. This, in turn, will lead to employment opportunities and the workforce will start returning to their jobs soon. This is the first step towards normalizing the situation. The focus today has to be on both lives and livelihoods. We have central ministries and state governments working together on this situation.

Is India’s testing for covid-19 adequate?

Of all those who are tested, only 3.4% are found to be positive. This detection rate was almost 4.7% a few days ago when tests were much fewer and it was contested that as tests would increase, this detection rate would go up. Now that we have crossed the 1 million mark of testing, the detection rate has only come down. In fact, if you look at France, the detection rate is almost 23%. Testing is already being increased every single day but the positive detection rate remains very low. India’s testing capacities have been ramped over the last month. Now, more than 90,000 tests are being conducted a day. Despite an increase in testing, our positive detection rate remains at less than 4%. Hence, if you put together the low testing detection rate, low mortality rate and improving recovery rates, you would realize that there is no reason to adopt an alarmist approach. Greater testing with hyper-localization, aggressive containment, effective monitoring, and efficient contact tracing is the way forward.

We are staring at a post-covid world with diminished demand for goods. Isn’t this a big problem for India pursuing a manufacturing and export-led growth strategy?

One must look at it the other way round, as a positive development. We must turn this crisis into an opportunity. Demand for goods may diminish the world over but there will also be a redistribution in terms of manufacturing destinations, which cater to the demand. There are many multinational corporations (MNCs) that are willing to shift their manufacturing base. This provides India a unique opportunity and we are well poised to be the location where manufacturing could potentially shift to. India has made substantial gains in ease of doing business and has improved its ranking from 142 in 2014 to 63 in a short period. This can be attributed to a number of reforms, including rolling out the goods and services tax and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code. India has a flair for innovation, an abundance of resources, and a very young workforce. We must seize this opportunity and make the most out of it. We should actively pursue sunrise areas of growth, as well as avenues to shift towards high technology and high-value exports.

India recently imposed fresh restrictions on foreign direct investment (FDI) from countries with which we share land borders. Last year India walked out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership dialogue. These signal a protectionist trend in our policies that can come in the way of restarting the economy. Can they not?

I do not think so. Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on economies across the world but India, according to International Monetary Fund figures, is expected to grow by 1.9% this year whereas the world gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to contract by 3%. This in itself is a positive signal for companies across the world to come and ‘make in India.’ The overall negative impact of the crisis on economies was inevitable and this has caused the valuations of even healthy and robust companies to take a hit. This can trigger opportunistic behaviour. Certain measures were taken by India to control such behaviour. However, we are not alone in doing this. Many countries across the world, including Australia, Spain, Germany, and the US have taken such decisions. We should not mix short-term and long-term strategies and use the former to predict our progress. We have greatly liberalized our FDI regime and we will aggressively continue to invite investments. Many states have initiated structural reforms in the labour and agriculture sectors. This is unprecedented. I am confident that India will show a sharp rebound.

What are the biggest opportunities for India in the post-covid world?

We must adapt, innovate, grow and lead. We must explore areas such as electric mobility, particularly the manufacture of electric two- and three-wheelers and also become the leaders in battery technology. In electric vehicle manufacturing, we see startups beginning to drive innovation while we have a huge market potential for lithium-ion batteries. Artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G are areas that we should vigorously pursue. AI, in fact, should be used as a cross-cutting intervention to improve efficiency across sectors including health, agriculture, and manufacturing. We must also look at genomics and pursue gene-mapping and DNA sequencing, which has the potential to transform how healthcare is delivered in India. These will be the new sunrise areas of growth.


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Updated: 18 May 2020, 01:51 AM IST
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