|The Indian government issued a 13-page order yesterday to clarify how the final two weeks of its five-week-long countrywide lockdown would be enforced. And most importantly, how businesses and citizens would be able to gradually exit it starting 20 April. |
Any business that wants to reopen and operate during the reduced lockdown period would need to follow an SOP (standard operating protocol).
So far, so good.
Then came the penal provisions.
|What this means is that for any “offence” committed by a company in contravention of the government’s SOP, every single person who “was in charge of” or “was responsible” for it will be “deemed guilty” and “shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly”. |
If you think that sounds, uhh, scary, then consider this. The order goes on to say that even directors, managers, secretaries or other officers of the company shall be deemed to be guilty of the offence and be punished.
But what’s the big deal, you ask? Why can’t all companies just follow the SOP guidelines?
Let’s use a few examples. 1. All workplace premises including building entrance, canteens, cafeteria, meeting room, conference halls, open areas, the entrance gate of sites, bunkers, porta cabins, building, verandah, lifts, washroom, toilet, sink, water points, walls and other surfaces shall be disinfected completely using user-friendly disinfectant mediums. Disinfected how often? What will count as proof? What is “user-friendly”? 6. Provision of hand wash and sanitiser in sufficient quantities preferably with touch-free mechanism at all entry and exit points and common areas. Hand wash and sanitiser? With touch-free mechanism? 9. Not more than 2/4 persons (depending on size) will be allowed to travel in lifts or hoists. “Depending on size” of what? Lifts or people? Who will decide? My point isn’t that these guidelines are unreasonable. They are very valuable to protect employees and society from the risk of infections as we restart our economy. It is also not that they should be made so specific that we eliminate all subjectivity. That is impossible, too. Covid-19 is an evolving crisis and we need to prioritise nimbleness over exactness. My point is that you cannot expose an organisation’s entire workforce and management—from a security guard or housekeeping attendant right up to its CEO and independent directors—to criminal prosecution and imprisonment up to one year. Because in the real world, which isn’t perfect, there will be a couple of violations that will take place each day in most businesses, regardless of how much attention they pay. If each of those violations could potentially turn into a jail term for a dozen people, well, you can imagine what it will lead to. While Rohin looked at the next two weeks, Olina has a shorter timeline in mind.
|Ready to play? The government’s order for the next two weeks of lockdown has one concession. Starting 20 April, it will allow zones that have shown “strict compliance with the existing guidelines” to partially open up for business. One can only assume that this is the best version of a staggered plan that the government could come up with. The plan is as bizarre, as the 20 April deadline is arbitrary.|
|Why do I call it bizarre? The Ministry of Home Affairs got the dates wrong on an official document. Possibly the most important part of the document. How did that happen?|
20 April is four days from now. How will officials from every corner of the country assess who broke compliance and when?
Without the availability of testing kits, how can any zone be declared “virus-free” without widespread testing? Four days. But let’s leave aside all common-sense questions for now. Let’s focus on what little evidence we have on hand. On 14 April, during the official Covid briefing by the Centre, Lav Agarwal, the representative of the Ministry of Health, used the following phrases to describe how well the government has handled the pandemic. Agarwal starts off with some heavy repetition from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s morning address. Upbeat, self-congratulatory stuff. “…collective strength…” “…holistic, integrated approach…” So far, yawn. Then Agarwal dangles a bait. “….selected activities will be allowed in selected areas…” “…will issue guidelines…” “…will evaluate who passes the litmus test…” Then he quickly pulls back. Where there’s a carrot, there is a stick. “…the permission can be withdrawn…” I’m no expert, but did the central government just set up a premise for the biggest reality show featuring 1.3 billion people? Think about it. The central government is a Big Brother-like judge, the state/district officials are players. How well you restrict movement, apply pressure and suppress information, is going to be the yardstick. There’s also a #7things challenge to follow. This is…interesting. To win conditional freedom, ironically, the states must come down even harder on the population. Curb movement. Surveil neighbourhoods for stray morning-walkers. Ensure everyone is masked. Local authorities will have to outdo each other to claim the prize. None of this is good news. Lockdown 1.0 was important to control the spread of the virus. It’s implementation, though, was both brutal and shabby. Delivery people were trashed, e-passes were in short supply, and citizens and their vehicles were routinely rounded up. Will Lockdown 2.0 have better rules? What will they be? Will we know now? Or once the game is over? The next four days are going to be super interesting. The second- and third-order effects of Lockdown 2.0 and 3.0, 3.7, 4.5….—which are likely to happen as the virus seeps into India’s broken healthcare system—will likely have an even stronger emphasis on curtailing movement, for the plum prize of freedom. The government has even included the citizen in this Big Brother version of governance. You comply, you perform tasks, you win. But at what cost? Over to Savio.
|Is Vidyo the privacy star? |
The “Banned by …” list for Zoom (and I’m sure you know why) has only grown. SpaceX, the US Senate, Taiwan’s government, NASA. Even Google. Then Standard Chartered banned Zoom and Google Hangouts. For all its security flaws, Zoom is still quite popular. But lawyers need something safer.
In late March, India’s Supreme Court restricted its functioning due to the pandemic and said it would hear only extremely urgent cases. And it picked a relatively unheard of video-conferencing app (imaginatively) called Vidyo. It’s very safe, says R. Arulmozhiselvi, a judicial officer who has worked on user guides for Vidyo and other software used in courts.
|Unlike other video applications, the Vidyo software works through centralised National Informatics Centre server. So, we can feel safe and secure. The app also provides for PIN protected meetings and sending invitations through e-mail along with the agenda. The app can be used by the judicial officers for remand extension of prisoners, examination of witnesses from far off places, holding one-to-one meeting of judges and so on. It would be nice if all judicial officers get a hands-on experience in using the app HC panel recommends use of app, The Hindu|
|It’s great that courts are going digital. The latest move may have been forced by the pandemic or may have been planned. Either way, it’s a welcome catalyst that one hopes stays on even after this crisis is over. Video conferencing has its benefits—from reducing costs to hearing urgent matters on weekends and court holidays. Witnesses can depose from homes and inmates from jails.|
But the devil is in the detail, especially for lawyers. Lalltaksh Josh, a practicing lawyer in Delhi, dug into the terms and conditions of the Vidyo app and found something … interesting. He noted:
There is no guarantee that third parties will not “intercept, interfere with, or access in an unauthorised manner” information on the app
The use-at-own-risk clause means a security breach may put the data at peril and the app may not even be liable
The information collected is stored on servers that are predominantly located in the US, Europe and Asia, beyond India’s territorial limits
Ok then. So, what do we know about Vidyo? Vidyo has been around for over a decade. It created quite a stir when it started and was once Cisco’s acquisition target, but then fell into mediocrity. It’s market share was less than 1% when it was acquired last year by Enghouse Systems Ltd., a Canadian tech company.
Why did the Indian judicial system pick Vidyo? Perhaps because its parent is Canadian. Or should I say perhaps because, unlike its better-known peers, Vidyo is not Chinese or American, with whom India doesn’t quite see eye to eye.
Still, there’s no place like home (I know, I know; not the best turn of phrase). But, it perhaps explains the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology’s launch of a new innovation challenge—a Make In India video conferencing solution.
|Sticking to the theme of technology, here’s Pranav.|
|Things we demonise at a time of crisis|
Last week, something interesting happened. People burnt down 5G towers in London; telecom engineers and workers were sent threats after conspiracy theories emerged on social media about 5G being the source of Covid-19.
The link between the latest telecom technology and the deadly virus could not have been more vague. A Belgian newspaper published a report linking the rollout of 5G in Wuhan, where the virus originated. It started circulating on social media and even celebrities started tweeting about it, which resulted in the masts being burnt.
Since then, scientists have rubbished the claims, saying there is no scientific evidence whatsoever. But how did we get here?
If 5G had been rolled out today, it could have been the solution to a lot of problems associated with the pandemic. Factory floors could have been automated, eliminating the need for humans to operate certain machines and processes, hence making social distancing easier. It could’ve even automated processes in healthcare, where monitoring could be done without involving humans.
The technology has been a major point of contention in the new geo-political dynamic that has been playing out in recent years. It has been perceived as an evil technology, a supernatural power, a weapon for a powerful military government to spy on the whole world—god’s eye, some call it. This explains the fear. The fear behind why makers of the technology are being put behind bars and a scapegoat for a disease that has no cure. The mysticism surrounding 5G seems to be its biggest drawback. Covid has only made it worse. Over to Ben.
|Nationalising malls? The headache of passing on rebates Retail has been one of the hardest hit sectors during pandemic, what with locked down populations unable to indulge in any physical retail therapy. Singapore’s retail sales dropped 10.2% year-on-year in February alone, with department stores’ sales plummeting 36.3%. The Singapore government has given property tax rebates to landlords to pass on to their retail tenants. However, with the majority of Singapore’s malls under Real Estate Investment Trusts with unit holders who are looking for their quarterly distribution, things have been tricky. But what if the government nationalised the malls instead? This might change the very nature of malls. Government retail spaces in Singapore are primarily in suburban public estates and have mostly been let out to ensure that basic goods and services would be available. If supersized to a mall, that would likely mean a focus more on services such as hairdressers, and minimarts. Nationalised malls would also likely be bereft of huge designer brands as anchor tenants. Mall management typically negotiates better terms for these crowd pullers in order to get them into a space. Government-controlled malls will have leases that would have to be bid on, a transparent process that doesn’t allow for backchannel negotiations. “This constant evolution in the retail industry adjusts to the changing aspirational lifestyles of the populace. The government, on the other hand, has a social mandate to ensure that basic goods and services remain accessible to the general public,” said Ethan Hsu, head of retail at Knight Frank Singapore to the Business Times.|
Nationalised malls would also look like carbon copies of each other, with utility rather than design being a huge factor. The tenant mix too will unlikely be varied, as the policies and planning would have blanket implementation rather than a mall-by-mall approach. This also means that the malls would be slow to react to changing consumer trends, as governments tend to move slower. All this results in malls that are likely to be non-air-conditioned to save costs, and stocking nothing but the basics. Here’s Rohin to close us out for today.
|From NBFC to NBLC In India, non-banking finance companies, or NBFCs, carry out all sorts of financial activities except those that are reserved for banks. Like taking deposits, issuing cheques, or participating in payment systems. There were close to 10,000 of them. India’s lockdown is turning them into non-banking liability companies, like Arundhati highlighted in her section yesterday.|
And Gaurav Hinduja in his tweet two days ago.
|Gaurav knows his stuff. He’s the co-founder and CEO of one of the largest NBFCs, Capital Float, which is backed by venture capital from the likes of Sequoia, SAIF and Amazon.|
|The Great Small Indian Marriage The Great Big Indian Marriage was a $50 billion business. Just two weeks of Covid-19 are estimated to have caused Indians to buy 50 tonnes less gold. TE Narasimhan reports in Business Standard.|
|At stake is the livelihood of millions of gig workers who provide wedding-related services — jewellers, designers, tailors, caterers, pavilion and tent providers and so on. This industry is highly fragmented, but employs a sizeable chunk of the gig workers. Rough industry estimate suggests that India hosts 10-12 million weddings every year. Now cancellations are running into the thousands. Kanika Subbiah, founder, Wedding Wishlist, said her company was organising nearly 30 weddings in November. In March, the number slid to four and in April just one. Coronavirus unties the wedding business knot amid lockdown extension, Business Standard|
|Repairocalypse Tens of thousands of refrigerators, televisions, microwaves, air-conditioners and washing machines are lying broken down because of India’s lockdown. What is the second-order effect when a family’s refrigerator breaks down? How do their eating habits change? What about when their water purifier breaks down? |
And what about businesses that had built themselves to rent out appliances, including those that sell even water by the litre? What happens to their repair and replace cycles?
Is this what eating out will look like, once lockdowns end?