‘India certainly has a big window of opportunity, provided ease of doing business is dramatically improved firmly’

Published on May 21, 2020 in BusinessLine

I think that all geographies have the potential to generate new business opportunities – it is not a zero-sum game

Scientist, innovator, thought leader of the manufacturing sector, national research professor, board member of a Fortune 500 company and recipient of Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian honour, Raghunath A Mashelkar wears many hats with ease.

In an exclusive interview with BusinessLine carried out over email and telephonic interaction, Mashelkar said that the post Covid-19 world would be a different world but China will continue to remain a manufacturing hub.
It is a reality, which cannot be wished away. It will be a China+1 world where global companies will spread their risks and set up their manufacturing in other geographies. In such a scenario, the Indian government and companies need to hit the gold vein and make the most of the forthcoming opportunities.

Excerpts of an interview

1. What kind of innovative technologies are required for speeding up the manufacturing process so that our companies add manpower, increase revenues and enhance exports in the post-Covid-19 world?

Dr. Mashelkar: Digital transformation of manufacturing operations is not an option but is an absolute necessity in the post-Covid-19 world. It will not only create a more flexible, agile, and responsive manufacturing environment but will also enable manufacturers to better respond to uncertainty, volatility, and risk.

In the short term, technologies that aid social distancing will be deployed at manufacturing plants. However, in a post-Covid-19 world in which workers have to keep their distance from each other, the trend towards automation will only accelerate; therefore the addition of manpower may reduce in the long term.

Some of the innovative technologies that need to be deployed are data analytics-led demand prediction and production planning, remote assisted assembly operations through Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and AI-based face tracking solutions to manage access control instead of biometrics.

IoT solutions can be of great help in energy management, and monitoring machines’ and workers’ health. Further, AI, IoT and data analytics will help in integrating customers, employees and vendors through digital platforms.

2. You are part of the Maharashtra Government’s task force for rejuvenating the state economy. What areas of Maharashtra’s economic activity need immediate attention?

Dr. Mashelkar: The Pune International Centre Expert Group under the visionary leadership of Economist Vijay Kelkar has acted as a think-tank for the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. It has given recommendations during the current crisis on a variety of economic building blocks. It ranges from the urgent issue of supporting and saving and then boosting the growth of MSMEs, to aggressively attracting foreign direct investments by wooing global majors, who will bring ancillaries and supply chains with them, to promoting investment flows and economic growth in specific sectors such as real estate. Some of these recommendations are urgent ‘here and now’ type, and some can be implemented in the medium term and some in the long term. I am delighted to say that the Chief Minister has set up a special task force to implement the recommendations so that ideas can lead to real impact without losing time.

3. In the post-Covid-19 world, which geographies globally will generate new business opportunities?

Dr. Mashelkar: The latest IMF growth projections on the world economy have predicted that China, India and ASEAN countries will see strong growth and business opportunities. However, I think that all geographies have the potential to generate new business opportunities – it is not a zero-sum game. As organisations respond, they will try to have a more diversified supply chain in the post-Covid-19 era, an opportunity for all economies. Growth may move closer or to countries that are neighbours. For inventory management, ‘Just in time’ will give way to ‘Just in Case’. Resilience will become more important than efficiency. The world will need new products and services. Businesses can avail this as a new opportunity. Health, sanitisation, distancing, protection, transportation, deliveries, surveillance, food security, and construction are some of the areas that will bring in new opportunities for the goods and services sector.

4. With the Chinese Government and their companies being viewed with great suspicion by the global business community, what can the Indian government do to attract global investments?

Dr. Mashelkar: The new business model will not be ‘no China’ but it will be ‘less China’.

In fact, it will be ‘China +1’.

Reportedly, Google is investing in Vietnam to produce its Pixel smartphone. Microsoft will produce its Surface tablet there. That means ensuring that alternative supply options are built too, not altogether abandoning China.

In that context, India certainly has a big window of opportunity, provided ease of doing business is dramatically improved by firmly and speedily dealing with the well-known challenges, which are linked to land availability, labour law and high cost of inputs. I strongly feel that the tech sector has a good future for attracting global investments into India.

Look at what has happened ― Jio Platform received FDI of over ₹67,000 crore from major payers like Facebook, Silver Lake, Vista Equity and General Atlantic in just four weeks, and that too when the Covid-19 pandemic was on the rampage and investments were at standstill in the rest of the world.

Why this surge in investments? Because Jio Platforms is a next-generation technology platform powered by leading technologies spanning cloud and edge computing, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, augmented and mixed reality and blockchain.

Just as in digital technology, we also have a huge opportunity in new biotechnology and advanced materials technologies.

5. You have strongly emphasised in your book ‘Reinventing India’ the critical importance of the trio of ‘Talent, Technology and Trust’. How relevant is it in the post-Covid-19 India?

Dr. Mashelkar: The three Ts are far more relevant now than ever before. Let me explain.

The Prime Minister just announced the ambitious launch of ‘Atmanirbhar’ Bharat, meaning a self-reliant India programme. This is both timely and laudable. However, for this aim to succeed, we require ‘Atmavishwas’, meaning trust and self-belief.

India’s greatest comparative advantage is a talent pool, but still talent, technology and trust must go together. Let me illustrate the point.

India desperately needed (and will need) large-scale testing during this pandemic, and even after this phase. For the Covid-19 testing kits, we were dependent on China. One million kits were imported and States governments started using the kits. But ICMR stopped the tests since the kits were faulty. On April 27, India cancelled an order that was already placed for half a million Chinese testing kits. My question is, can the Indian biotechnologist design, develop and deploy these kits in the country? The answer to this is a definite yes.

For instance, rising to the challenge, the Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology (IGIB) a premier Institute of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has created an innovative test, which uses cutting-edge CRISPR technology for detection of the genomic sequence of the novel coronavirus.

It specifically recognises Covid-19 sequence in a sample with greater specificity than the state-of-the-art techniques. An innovative combination of CRISPR biology and paper-strip chemistry has to lead to the visible signal readout on a paper strip. Its main advantage is its affordability (₹500 only) and relative ease of use and non-dependency on expensive Q-PCR machines.

CSIR, IGIB and Tata Sons will bring it to the market within a month. The jury is out on whether we will have the ‘Atmavishwas’, the self-belief, for wide-scale use and promote this globally-competitive technology, not only in India but also export it abroad.

In early April, India announced that it will import second-hand ventilators from abroad and now comes the US announcement of the donation of ventilators to India.

Can’t India build them on their own? Yes, we can. Let me explain.

In April, Marico Innovation Foundation had set up a grand challenge ‘Innovate2beatCOVID’ with a cash prize of ₹2.5 crore, with me as the Chairman of the jury. The prize is going to some remarkable innovations in both PPEs and ventilators, both of which today are imported.

The innovations being awarded are designed to suit Indian conditions and some of them even have features which are ahead of the state-of-the-art technology.

Again some of the innovations can help create ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ in the space of PPEs and ventilators. But what is required is an aggressive and bold public procurement policy to support such innovations. I have described it in ‘The Path Ahead: Transformative Ideas for India’, a book edited by the CEO of NITI Aayog, Amitabh Kant.

However, the implementation of all these transformative ideas will require ‘Atmavishwas’, the trust, the self-belief, the never-say-die spirit of ‘yes, we can’.