Businesses face looming challenges

By Harveer Sahni, Chairman, Weldon Celloplast Limited | 04.24.20

COVID-19 presents a host of consequences to label converters and their employees.

As a few days of stay-at-home orders during the lockdown have extended to weeks – and seemingly months – what appeared to be a small intermission in life has now started to appear like a massive traumatic challenge to our daily existence.

The initial days of this pause went like a small vacation, where we were spending time with family, indulging in hobbies and more. Time was spent playing with children or grandchildren, reading, surfing on the net, meditating, praying, and working out at home. When the thought of business at a stand still gave rise to stress, many like me busted it by trying creativity in cooking.

But as we reach the end of the second part of lockdown; worries of time, money and lost business loom large on our minds. Also worrisome is the fate of the workers and staff that face the loss of jobs.

A growing number of organizations around the world have already started shedding jobs. Some of international label industry equipment suppliers in Europe and the USA have already cut down on the number of senior executives, especially those posted at foreign locations. It would be unethical to mention any specific names in this difficult time until the companies themselves announce.

Suffering is not just from infections due to COVID-19 but also from its impact on jobs and lifestyles. In India, as you go down the lower rungs of society, the difficulties grow exponentially. See the plight of migrant laborers who traveled hundreds of miles away from home to make an earning to feed their families and now they are without a shelter and food. Many of them are daily wage earners who earn during the day to have money to buy food for the next 24 hours. They also have no transportation to go back to their homes in villages faraway. They cannot pay the rent and do not know what the next day has in store for them. For those who managed to reach their homes in villages are not sure if they will be accepted back at work. Even the employers will be hesitant as they are not sure who may be carrying some infection. 

The coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, but who brought it to India? Meanwhile, it is obvious that the travelers are the ones who spread it inadvertently. In India, it is either the foreigners traveling in or the outbound Indians returning home. Almost three million Indians travel out of India every month, and the arrivals into India are less than a million every month – making for a total of four million per month.

If we take the total arrivals into India from January to March, around 12 million people moved in and out in three months. Is it not strange that less than 1% number has put 135 Crore Indians into problem? On the flip side, even just 1% of these travelers, if infected, could have wreaked havoc on the country. But then no one carries the infection intentionally. Who passed it on is not in the know of the unsuspecting traveler, one cannot really blame them, can they? However, the timely lockdown by prime Minister Modi seems to have stemmed the fast spread to a great extent.

While the industry has yet to realize the actual impact of this unprecedented occurrence, the very thought of the time ahead sends a shiver down the spine. India has been adversely impacted due to continuous changes, which may have been brought about with good intentions, Demonetization, GST introduction, slowdown and now the lockdown due to coronavirus have all taken place. Except for essentials for survival, all spending has been on hold, trade and industry is at standstill, expenses of businesses have ticked on while earnings have vanished.

Even when the lockdown is lifted it will be a very slow process and may take many months to return to normalcy. Lack of demand for FMCG and other non-essential consumer goods will impact the industry negatively. The travel trade, organized retail and restaurants will face a crisi,s as it will be long before people gain confidence to travel or venture out in public places.

Schools are not likely to open for a few months, and unemployment is likely to rise. Life will undergo a complete change. However, as they say, there is light at the end of the tunnel. India may appear to become the preferred manufacturing hub for the world, and when things improve (maybe next year) the economy may bounce back to greater heights. It would be pertinent to mention here that in view of the imperative need for social distancing, e-commerce is likely to grow immensely. Instead of crowding in shops and malls, home delivered shopping with safety measures will be opted for. On a brighter note: the pollution is down, the cities are cleaner, the rivers are clean, the sky is clearer, the birds are back and chirping and the world is united in its stance against this pandemic.

The government has been putting small amounts of cash in workers' accounts, which does not cover all. Moreover, the amount is not enough to feed families of four or five. They are not sure how many will be able to return to their  jobs and whether they will be taken back or not, and what precautions they have to take and whether life in cities will remain affordable in the future.

The poor and the worst affected will be left wondering the meaning of residual parts of life,and they will surely look toward the government for help. The constitution of India provides for a right to life. Article 21 of the constitution reads as: “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.”

Elaborating on this, the Supreme Court of India has put forth that, “The right to live includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, viz., the bare necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter over the head and facilities for reading writing and expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and mingling with fellow human beings and must include the right to basic necessities, the basic necessities of life and also the right to carry on functions and activities as constitute the bare minimum expression of human self.”

So, it is an imperative for the government to come to the rescue of the affected citizens. The lockdown is not the brainchild or imposition of business owners or the trade. It is a result of a pandemic over which neither the workers nor the business owners have any control. At this time, the government needs to come to the rescue of their citizens to exercise their right to life. Each time one tries to ponder over the impact of this virus and its deadly nature that has affected millions around the world, the question that is beyond a common man’s comprehension keeps cropping up, “Who has done it?”

About the author: Harveer Sahni is the chairman at Weldon Celloplast Limited.