Ramu Ramanathan: Print innovation can provide human touch

I broke my vow to myself and attended three closed-door Zoom meetings in June. There were four themes that seemed to resonate with some of India's biggest print and packaging businesses

01 Jul 2020 | By Ramu Ramanathan

Ramanathan: Health care needs to create a technological innovation that is going to save our lives

The Optimists: "Raksha Bandhan and the Dussehra-Diwali festival season will boost the economy. But we don't know what is actually going to happen in the busy season from August to December." The Pragmatists: "We are operating at 60% capacity and it is touch and go because we are trying to work out what volumes are there now, what will come back and how quickly; and what won’t come back."

The Majority: "Our focus is on cash conservation and debt management. We are starting to make redundancies and wage cuts and layoffs." And finally, the Idealists: "Our industry is not going to get any government support to get through this. If we have to survive and thrive, we the industry will have to reshape for the post-Corona economy."

Meanwhile, newspaper sales have plunged. More than 1,000 journalists have lost their jobs since 25 March. Some media houses whose profit lines would be the envy of the top 30 companies on the Sensex, are laying off journalists. Some bosses have written to employees warning of impending job losses due to the pandemic’s impact on copy sales and advertising. Some newspaper groups with their own printing capacity have also brought jobs back in-house that were previously outsourced.

On 18 March, I exited Mumbai. Since the past three months, I have been living in a tiny village called Kharvel, which is in proximity to Dharampur (Valsad district). A small provision store run by a husband and wife (I have nicknamed it the Pati-Patni store), which caters to a village of 300 people, has been my saviour during the lockdown. All items available. Albeit in small sizes such as Rs 5 and Rs 10 sachets because that is the purchasing power of the locals. Which is why ITC launched a multi-purpose germ protection wipes under the Savlon brand. And what was the price of its Savlon sanitiser sachet? 50 paise.

Needless to state the Pati-Patni store did not stock ITC. Nor did they answer my query if it was a 100%-recyclable monolayer pouch (I got a strange look!). But the smallest store on the planet stocked a local brand from Gujarat. I purchased it, happily. Meanwhile, in the neighbouring Dharampur town, I heard there was a huge rush to source their requirements of goods on eCommerce platforms. In a matter of weeks, the pandemic caused 15 years' worth of new adopters to try eCommerce for the first time. So? Should one expect a sizable increase in the requirement of corrugated packaging from this segment?

The Pati-Patni store

In 1854, the Maharaja of the Princely State of Dharampur guaranteed total vaccination. And later, the Sisodia clan built 23 primary schools for girl children. Today, it sounds revolutionary. That's because these days everything is judged by revenue. But you can't reduce human life to a revenue stream.

While speaking to a doctor who works in the medical welfare scheme in nearby Nandigram, I am told, health expenditure is the fastest growing component of a rural family debt. As per the Public Health Foundation of India (June 2018) when it analysed diverse data sets on health, it concluded that 55 million people had been pushed into poverty in 2011-12, because of having to fund their own health issues. The report says, 38 million of these had fallen below the poverty line due to spending on medicines.

Ideally, this should be an opportunity (like the 50-paise sachet). But, whole sectors of society — electronics, pharmaceuticals, bioengineering — are given over to creating innovations for the sake of innovation. Health care needs to create a technological innovation that is going to save our lives. Or else even in the post-Covid world it will be stuck in the rut of production, consumption, distribution, and 300% profit margins.

Will it happen? Obviously no. The Pharma Giant has little or no interest in non-remunerative research on infectious diseases. The Pharma Giant rarely invests in prevention. It has little interest in investing in preparedness for a public health crisis. It loves to design cures. The sicker we are, the more they earn. Prevention does not contribute to shareholder value. This is a myth. Just like the myth that migrants don't add to the P&L of a nation such as ours.

On 26 March 2020, India discovered migrant labourers. It’s not as if they did not exist till then. Even then, we relied on 2011 inter-state migration data, which said there are 54 million people. This is a huge underestimate. The migration experts didn't take into record short-term migrations, circular migrations or informal migrations.

I met one such gent while I was taking a morning walk to collect milk from the local dairy. He walked up to me and said, "Bhookh." The irony was brutal. All around me the most fertile soil on which grew the most expensive cash crops in the country. I guess, devaluation does not occur because commodities cannot be sold, but because they are not available in time.

At that moment, three facts about food (gleaned from a closed-door food policy confabulation) flashed through my mind: four companies dominate more than 75% of the global trade in grains; 17 edible plant species out of a total of 3,00,000 that grow on this planet provide 90% of all our food; and  75% less copper + magnesium in a carrot, and 50% less calcium + iron than 80 years ago.

This is the big picture. Perhaps the high and mighty people in our industry know they cannot alter this. And so, they are content with minor tweaks in the workflow of our factory shopfloor. And so, we have endless discussions whether we need to shorten or diversify the supply chains or move towards less labour-intensive forms of production or rely on artificial-intelligent production systems. The point is, the consequences are wide-ranging. One obvious truth is that technologies are never static; they’re never settled, and they quickly become obsolete. Catching up with the latest technology can be stressful and costly. Accelerating obsolescence can be disastrous for existing firms.

Perhaps it is a better idea to pressurise those who rule us. Perhaps it is time to behave like the Maharaja of Dharampur and do a bit for our actual customer. That is, We The People!

If you want to share your point of view about the above story, please email: charmiane.alexander@haymarketsac.com