Heads held high

Despite signs of economic distress caused by COVID-19, Indian industries are inspiring confidence in their bounce-back capabilities by donating generously to fight the crisis

Notwithstanding poor demand and production cutbacks across the industry, contributions worth millions of dollars from business establishments are pouring into government and non-government charities ever since the nation went on a three-week lockdown to maintain social distance to prevent coronavirus from spreading. The house of Tatas showed the way by committing over Rs 1,500 crore to charities to fight the virus. The Wipro group and Azim Premji Foundation committed Rs 1,125 crore. Collectively, India's state-owned enterprises (CPSUs) committed donations worth over Rs 2,500 crore. The oil PSUs, including ONGC, Indian Oil, Hindustan Petroleum, Petronet LNG, GAIL, Oil India and privatisation-bound Bharat Petroleum have contributed over Rs 1,031 crore to the 'Prime Minister Cares Fund' till date. In addition, employees of several PSUs have contributed independently. ONGC chief Shashi Shanker said the company gave Rs 300 crore from its corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds while its employees contributed two days' salary, totalling Rs 16 crore. "We are maintaining oil and gas production by practising social distancing," he said. Besides contributing to the PM fund, company employees and their families have been feeding unemployed daily wagers. Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan was naturally delighted. "I am humbled to see the commitment of our people of oil and gas PSUs when the world faces one of the biggest crises. I am proud to be a part of this family," the minister tweeted.

India's top steelmaker, SAIL, contributed Rs 30 crore to the Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES) set up to fight the deadly Coronavirus. SAIL employees have also contributed a day's salary to the fund, amounting to approximately Rs 9 crore. "We stand committed to dedicating ourselves in the service of the nation in every possible way. Along with this, we have also scaled up and mobilised various health services in coordination with local authorities of respective state governments for fighting this medical emergency situation," said SAIL chairman Anil Kumar Chaudhary. The company has also provided a large number of medical facilities including ICU beds, isolation beds, quarantine facilities, and sanitisers at hospitals and to its workers. Among other PSEs contributing big to the PM CARES Fund are- Rural Electrification Corporation (Rs 150 crore), Power Finance Corporation (Rs 200 crore) and Coal India (Rs 220 crore). Mining major NMDC committed an advance royalty payment of Rs 200 crore to the Chhattisgarh government to help the state in its fight against COVID-19. The move comes on top of NMDC's contribution of Rs 150 crore to the PM CARES Fund. Several PSEs have offered support to both the central and state governments, where their operation units are located, to fight against COVID-19.

But let us not forget the contributions being made to the nation by financially disgraced Air India, facing a distress sale by the government, its owners. The airline is the biggest face-saver for the government, bulk transporting foreign and Indian nationals from and to India. Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, an Air India special flight carried 314 Israelis back to their country with many passengers joyfully carrying Indian and Israeli flags while departing. The Israeli embassy had put up a request with the Ministry of External Affairs, which, in turn, asked Air India to operate such a flight. Israel is under total lockdown with people not allowed to walk beyond 100 metres from their homes. The national carrier had earlier organised rescue flights for Indians stuck in China, Italy, Iran and Madrid, among others. India is on lockdown from March 25 to April 15 to curb the spread of the virus. Consequently, domestic and international flights have been suspended. However, cargo flights and special flights are allowed with the approval of aviation regulator DGCA. Offshore helicopter operations and medical evacuation flights have also been exempted from the ban.

In fact, Air India has proved that the airline has more value than many in the government would like people to believe. At a time of national distress as this, the government could trust a few private airlines with such an arduous task. Outside Air India, most airlines operating in the country are managed by NRIs who are in business as long as they make good profits. Some of these private airlines borrowed heavily from India's state-run banks. The combined bad debt of debunked private airlines, since the government liberalised private participation in this sector, would be much more than Air India's total loss. Considering Air India's pivotal role in support of the government's efforts to tackle the Coronavirus crisis, more and more people feel that the national airline shouldn't be dumped in a rushed fire-sale just to balance the government's books. It may be recalled that in the 1990s, both Air India and Indian Airlines evacuated 110,000 Indians from Kuwait (via Amman) over two months when the Gulf War erupted, earning Air India a place in the Guinness Book of Records. In 2015, Air India together with Indian Air Force evacuated 4,640 Indians from Sana'a when the Saudis attacked Yemen. Now, Air India is swooping into Coronavirus-stricken regions like Wuhan in China and Milan in Italy to bring back Indians and other South Asians.

War and death due to outbreak of highly infectious diseases are the time when nations unite to survive against possible destruction. It is good to see that Indian society is united to fight the COVID-19 attack with all its might. The current lockdown is highly depressing. But, few are complaining. The morale of the public, industry and government is high. They generally believe that there is nothing to panic and the situation would soon be under control. Their sentiment has received a big boost by the UNCTAD's latest assessment that though the world economy is almost certain to go into recession, India and China could be an exception. Hopefully, life will gradually turn normal from October, this year.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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