How Corporate India needs to think about managing the pandemic

Manish Sabharwal has been watching what’s going on in the economy, in the society, and in the government from multiple vantage points. He talks about the possible scenarios and how business—and indeed the country—will need to sequence and calibrate their response

Founding Fuel

As chairman of TeamLease and member of the board of Reserve Bank of India, Manish Sabharwal is well-placed to see what’s unfolding from a business and a policy perspective.

In a conversation with some members of Founding Fuel and former Tata group veteran Satish Pradhan, Sabharwal says, it is tough to model how business will behave in the coming weeks and months. “The first input in a GPS is not where you are going, it’s where you are.” Response will vary based on whether the lockdown lifts on April 15 (for corporate India, that will be like just having a skinned knee), continues beyond May 1 (a broken leg), or continues beyond May or June (akin to an amputation for many employers). In the last scenario, the response shifts to the realm of policy.

Having said that, don’t forget that “everything you do to murder the virus is going to murder the economy”. Another truth here is that customers, and not shareholders or lenders, pay the salaries. So, according to Sabharwal, the right sequence of response is, first deal with the virus, then deal with poor citizens, then deal with the economy, then deal with employers and then deal with the financial system.

Is there a possibility of green zones and red zones for businesses to operate in? Sabharwal reckons not. Because supply chains, including people supply chains, are national. So, it would be hard to maintain green zones, because economic distress in red zones would migrate to green zones.

In all this, the COVID-19 crisis has also brought home a few other truths:

  • Working from home has provided continuity in the last 10 days, but the jury's still out on whether it’s delivering productivity.
  • Entrepreneurship is about staying alive long enough to get lucky. The best practice right now is just making an assessment for what you will do on April 15.
  • But, while we do need to think about what is the best method that helps us survive, prematurely scaring people with what we will do on April 15 will also be a mistake, because then they will be dying from a 1,000 cuts between now and April 15.
  • Having high debt (for a company) means you can’t be resilient. “At the end of this, employees will evaluate companies as much for performance and productivity as resilience.”
  • The human tragedy and the corporate tragedy is large. But India needed a little policy jhatka (shock) to expose that we need to accelerate civil services reforms.
  • The reality is we don't have city leadership and that's where the rubber meets the road.
  • Rather than expecting NGOs, private sector and government to substitute for each other, let's learn how to complement each other. Because we all have three birth defects. And we all have very unique strengths. The government has resources, private sector has execution, and NGOs have trust. But NGOs don't have scale. Private sector doesn't have trust, and the government doesn't have execution.

A few positive shifts are already visible though:

  • There’s a massive raising of India's digital literacy at all ages.
  • This has brought forward telemedicine, e-learning, and work from home by 15 years.
  • Corporate India is listening more—it is, in fact, being forced to listen more.

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Vijay Anand on Apr 09, 2020 4:23 p.m. said

This is a phenomenal video.... beautiful questions and answers!