Prime Minister Narendra Modi exhorted industrialists to keep the wheels of production of essential commodities going as usual, notwithstanding the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown to prevent its spread.
At first blush, this may sound contradictory, given the fact that a number of factory workers may have to be exempted from confinement at home, in addition to healthcare professionals and support staff, bankers, skeletal government staff, petrol pump and restaurant employees and grocer shops, to name a few.
There may also be questions about what exactly are essential goods. While cars, computers and textiles may not fit the bill, there can be doubts about truck body building shops and soft-drink factories. Indeed, there can be grey areas galore — but it’s not an insurmountable problem.
Yet, what the PM is worried about is genuine and should worry every one of us. Already, large pockets of the affected states in the United States, namely New York and California, are experiencing shortage of medical supplies — thanks to the unprecedented demand for hospital beds, consumables, ventilators and masks. A similar or worse situation can arise in India if we do not keep our production lines going uninterrupted.
The need for balancing the lockdown with keeping the supply chain going can be highlighted as follows:
Imports are not a promising option, especially in a milieu of international air and shipping traffic coming to a standstill as well as the reluctance of nation states to export in view of their own growing need to conserve whatever is available.
The needs of the medical and paramedical community must be met fully. Already, there are reports of huge shortage of coveralls and other safety gears, including masks. A section of doctors has given dark hints that they will strike work should their safety concerns not be addressed immediately. The news that an on-duty doctor at the King George Medical College in Lucknow being infected with COVID-19 raises an alarm. Before you put on the oxygen masks of your fellow passengers, put on yours first is the advice given by the cabin crew before a flight takes off. In a pandemic, the medical personnel must similarly ensure they do not get infected before ensuring their patients are not infected or if infected are treated.
Essential goods, including food, medicines, vegetables and fruits must be made available in neighbourhood stores. To keep these stores stocked, the supply chains must go on as usual.
Work from home is not an option for everyone, especially if the work demands physical presence. Like Modi hinted, those working at the production lines indeed have to stir out to their factories. Robots manning production lines are not an idea that is far-fetched, but to ramp up our factories for robots at short notice is unthinkable and unworkable.
To ensure that our supply chain production is not disrupted due to the nation-wide lockdown, here are a few suggestions:
Let government and private buses be pressed into service by factory owners in co-operation with the local administration to ferry workers to factories and back home. The buses need to be sanitised regularly as indeed the factories.
To such production facilities car pools must be encouraged so that executives and supervisors can travel without much ado. Special passes must be provided in such cases.
Hotels near factories, which are in any case going without business, must be opened to house factory workers so that they do not have to travel long distance.
Local rickshaw-pullers, construction and factory workers laid off by the lockout should be allowed to work as temporary workers to fill the void left by the regular workers.
The local administration and factory owners must think of one or more of such fleet-footed responses so that production lines are not shut down. Otherwise, there is an imminent danger of lurching from one crisis to another — from a pandemic to a shortage of essential commodities, even malnutrition.
In addition, the government would be spared of the burden of doling out more relief measures, including cash transfers, especially at a time when the government finances are in a precarious state. Workers, too, would have the satisfaction that they have contributed to the nation in the hour of crisis.
S Murlidharan is a chartered accountant and columnist. Views are personal.
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