By Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw
The Covid-19 pandemic is an inflection point for India to introspect on its global leadership potential. Despite the economic devastation caused by the virus, India’s agility in pivoting its resources to respond to the crisis has made the country a global outlier. With 1.3 billion people, we have seen about 12 million infections (less than 1%) and 160,000 deaths (a 1.25% case fatality ratio, or CFR). In comparison, the US and Europe reported infection rates of 8-10% and a CFR of more than 2%. Our hospitals coped, our doctors treated, and our healthcare workers performed admirably. The healthcare industry also delivered, first with diagnostic tests, then with personal protective equipment, masks and ventilators, followed by antipyretics, antimalarials, antivirals, steroids and antibiotics, and finally with vaccines. At the same time, we built a robust information technology backbone to track and trace infections, conduct artificial intelligence-based CT scans to rapidly diagnose disease severity, create databases and real-time dashboards to map the pandemic, and deploy vaccines at scale.
Besides inoculating our own people, we have provided 58 million doses of vaccines to over 70 countries and are equipped to supply more in the coming days. Our vaccine and medical diplomacy has set the stage for revisiting India’s global leadership role in a post-covid world.
In the aftermath of the Donald Trump presidency, the US is working to revive its global leadership. Europe is struggling to cope with the pandemic amid vaccine shortages and a surge in covid cases. A post-Brexit UK economy is grappling with renewed coronavirus lockdowns. Most of Asia remains extremely wary and is keeping borders shut to business and tourism. India, on the other hand, is rapidly opening its economy and appears far more confident of emerging stronger from the pandemic with mass-scale vaccination and sustained vigilance. This is a favourable geopolitical moment that India must seize.
The capacity mapping of global vaccine supply chains has exposed gaping holes. Western drugmakers have typically focused on seasonal flu, shingles, pneumococcal vaccines, etc., for their much smaller and affluent populations, whereas Indian vaccine makers have traditionally mass produced vaccines for the World Health Organization and GAVI to serve a large number of people in low- and middle-income countries. Western hegemony over the intellectual property and regulatory process for vaccines has created market distortions, wherein India caters to 60% of the world’s vaccine requirement but accounts for only 3% by value. The covid reality is no different. Leading Western vaccine makers can barely cater to a population of less than a billion between the US and Europe, whereas India, China and Russia together are catering to the needs of the world’s other 7 billion people. With its capacity of 3 billion vaccine doses, India is the globe’s dominant supplier.
Indian efforts are crucial for a global recovery from covid. Imagine a world where India goes missing from the spheres of software support, generic drugs, vaccines, agricultural produce and other key technologies. Fortune 500 companies would collapse for lack of ‘back-office’ software support. Lack of access to affordable drugs and vaccines made in India would imperil global healthcare. Various home consumables would disappear from global retail shelves. Garment retailers would struggle to source cotton, silk and other value-added fabrics. Satellite launches, electric vehicles, drones and robotics, which are highly dependent on Indian software development and support, would become exorbitant.
India has a unique opportunity to build itself into a brand focused on scale, affordability, reliability and value. It needs to transition from being a volume player to a substantial value player in global markets by increasing its participation in technology and capital-intensive sectors, and by leveraging scientific know-how and enhanced research and development.
India’s role in digital transformation globally is under-appreciated and our true value contribution grossly under-reported. While India has done well in software services, the next big opportunity is in software products. Witness the current emphasis on creating new platforms and products among India’s over 12,500-odd tech startups. With India on track to have over 50 unicorns in 2021, the potential for value creation is evident.
India’s path-breaking efforts in space technology led to a successful Mars mission in 2014 at a fraction of what Nasa and the European Space Agency spent on their respective missions. The Indian Space Research Organisation is now helping several other countries launch satellites for space research, navigation, broadband spectrum, etc.
India produces 15% of the world’s vegetables and 22% of the world’s fruits. We are among the largest global producers of milk, rice, wheat, sugarcane, cotton, tea, coffee, mangoes, and so on, but we have only a 1% share of global sales placed at $260 billion. A sound branding strategy that incorporates technology and value addition through agri-processing and packaging could raise India’s share to 5%. Why should Kenyan coffee command a premium instead of Coorg coffee? If Darjeeling tea sells at a premium globally, why not tea from the Nilgiris or Assam? Tea and coffee are both protected and endangered species, so we must brand and price them properly. The same goes for mangoes, spices, rice, etc.
In the post-covid world, India must identify its true strengths and strategically evolve a global brand position that effectively conveys the value addition we provide the world.
We must project the country internationally as a ‘valuable’ partner rather than just a ‘low cost’ vendor. While investing in economic opportunities that can be scaled up at reasonable cost, we also have to build strong intellectual property. For global leadership, ‘Brand India’ needs to stand for value, innovation and the highest quality.
This article first appeared in Live Mint on 24 March 2021.