History repeats itself, but in new avatars. Perhaps, the Covid-19 pandemic has yet again put India at the cusp of a change-in-making. Many centuries ago, Indians crossed many geographies as labourers for our colonial masters. Many generations later, the labour lineage is today settled as the renowned diaspora spread from Africa to the UK to Fiji in the Pacific Islands to South America and the Caribbean islands. In the post-colonial era, the labourers again ventured, this time as semi-skilled.
While some brought the dairy revolution in New Zealand and others, fresh from the Green Revolution lessons and rugged farm experience, brought the cauliflower and broccoli to every American and Canadian households as Punjabi migrants took over fields from the West Coast in the United States up to Canada up north. Finally, in the 1980s, the “skilled brain wave” from India started to chart a new destiny overseas and are settled and famous as the global IT czars, policymakers, famous doctors and some politicians, too.
Today, the corona pandemic, the fury and the lethal effect of which is yet underestimated and unknown, is the time-turner and may begin a new era for India. The country, which has the biggest asset in its human resources (from skilled to migrant labour and professionals), many of whom are sitting idle and frustrated, need to take some leaf out of recent “overseas migration” history pages. India can be the world’s new skill market. A new destiny waits for India and Indians.
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package making a clear-cut thrust on villages and the agriculture sector, a strong unexplored prospect is in turning out to be the “world’s bread basket”. Food would be a crucial area for India to expand overseas and fill into the supply chain with a possible exit of China from the global markets for the worldwide criticism it is facing due to the alleged role in the coronavirus outbreak. Many developed and developing economies are shutting the doors on trade from China.
This is the time for India to be the breadmaker for the world. With the Covid-19 continuing its worst effects for some more months, many developing countries, which are completely dependent on traded groceries and food items, will suffer and face a very high inflation. Australia, for example, is facing its worst inflation since 2014. Retailers and suppliers have pushed the prices in Australia superstores up by 20 times.
Much of the state of economic misery for consumers is blamed on corona. Is the Indian government and India Inc listening and seeing an opportunity in crisis? If India is waiting for foreign firms to set up shops and boost foreign direct investments (FDI), promising both money and jobs as we have heard in the past few weeks, then Indian corporates should also explore opportunities overseas to push the card in food, agriculture and infrastructure building sectors. If Adanis can venture in Australia to explore coal blocks, it’s time for them to sell their expertise in foods to Australian superstores.
If Mahindras are into farm and agro businesses in the US, it’s time to till large acres of land as a contract farmer on lease and once again relive the spirit of Punjabiyat from East to West Coast in the US. A new Green Revolution combining the art of India’s traditional farming with mechanised farming tools is needed today to produce enough, not only to feed the country, but to feed billions of hungry bellies worldwide. Demand for food will only grow. We estimate that total demand for agricultural products in 2030 will be about 60% higher than today.
More than 85% of this additional demand will be in the developing countries, as nearly all population growth will be there. But is there sufficient food at hand? The developed West is already facing empty breakfast plates every morning with no cereal packs on the kitchen shelf. Fruits, rice, dairy items, fish and processed meat, juices and spices are all a “luxury” today for many households worldwide.
India need to seize this opportunity in no time and the policymakers must make the most of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “multi-polar diplomacy” and play the “soft diplomacy” card in many countries from Australia in the Pacific to the Middle-East to the Europe and the US in the West, to offer our best human resources as key to running the local economy. Brazil and Nordic countries, both having warm ties with India, will be perfect work destinations for our men in search for jobs.
The government is battling the labour and migrant issue, but buzz is that it is also thinking on how to channelise skills of its vast work force rusting in the country. One solution may be that the Indian government must start looking out in different countries to meet the local demands of labour, including in agriculture and food production to mobility transportation hands to meeting the culinary demands as chefs and hospitality workforce. But a completely different policy will be the real key to success.
The new job markets for Indians in overseas countries will require intensive diplomacy and the government’s checks and regulations to make it a formal arrangement and also send the message that the labour force is being looked after and not left to idle as being painted in the Western media. To start with, India must take up its goodwill relations with Australia by sending ship loads of cereals and essential groceries in no time and make the supply chain normal in the next three months by September.
Entrepreneurship can be at any level and on any land. If British can form East India Company for trading, then we can form Indian Farmers Company to buy, lease and rent large tracts of lands in countries where farming labour is not available and demand for food is growing. India’s own strength in agriculture has always been underestimated and time has come to maximise the potential with technology support and combining it with the best research and practices available in books and in labs.
Apart from agriculture, the country can start creating a corporation of “indigenous skilled labour” which will only be sent to countries on demand to expand India’s diplomatic reach out. For instance, France and Italy, once fully out of the corona crisis, will need a lot of labour to run their restaurants and many to fill gaps in food stores and agri-produce businesses, including beverages and dairy.
India can also explore the Middle East countries to be the sole supplier of food products and will have to shed inhibitions in turning out to be the meat and poultry producer for the region and be the firststop grocer having expertise in processed foods. The Indian food processing industry has to eye global markets with all its local product menu. The crown for India as the world’s new market waits in many forms. PM Modi and his men need to pick the right road to economic recovery.