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Beyond The First Order is a daily email newsletter that digs deep into the higher order effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on industries, ecosystems, economies, governments and more.
This is a free edition of a paid newsletter that’s available exclusively to The Ken’s premium subscribers.
Looks like yet another lockdown is imminent in many parts of India. What does that mean for jobs? Data suggests the rate of joblessness is going down, but for whom, is the real question.
Also, trawling is a dangerous activity. When you trawl for Chinese investments, expect collateral damage. Speaking of damage, India has been a diesel car market - because it was cheap. Not anymore. This and more in today’s edition. Let’s jump in.
The gloom in India’s falling jobless rate
As the world’s longest and strictest lockdown is gradually relaxed, India’s job numbers have begun to improve. Its unemployment rate for the week ended 21 June was 8.5%—similar to pre-lockdown levels—according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). This is a welcome fall from the peak of 27.1% in early May.
If the significant improvement in the jobs data runs counter to what you are hearing from your friends and colleagues, you are not mistaken.
The jobs which are being added are in the informal sector, says Mahesh Vyas, CEO of CMIE, in an interview with IndiaSpend:
In April—the first full month of lockdown—the loss of jobs was 122 million. In May, 20 million of those jobs came back. If you see which jobs came back, it is predominantly street hawkers and daily wage labourers. Of 22 million jobs, 14.4 million jobs were of this category. The remaining that came back were largely in the small businesses—basically small shops, very small businesses [that] have opened up again as the lockdown was relaxed in May.
On the other hand, 100,000 additional salaried jobs were lost in May, according to Vyas. There are no signs yet that companies will start hiring again soon.
Even in villages, where the unemployment rate is lower than in urban areas, the revival has been led by the government. There were 565 million person-days of jobs created under India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in May, over 50% higher than in the same month of 2019. (Person-days are the number of people working multiplied by the number of days worked.)
The state of Rajasthan has asked for the limit on the number of days a household is eligible for work under the scheme to be doubled to 200 days. But, as this article points out, the average duration of employment provided in 14 states in 2019-20 was just 50 days.
A good monsoon forecast and increased sowing for the current crop season notwithstanding, MGNREGA will be the key mode of job creation in rural India. But the government does not have a magic pill for the unemployed in the salaried class.
India’s diesel price-hike flow chart
Fuel prices in India have been rivalling the jump in Covid-19 cases in the past couple of weeks. The price of diesel rose for the 18th day in a row on Wednesday, but petrol price remained unchanged. This means that for the first time EVER, diesel costs more than petrol in the national capital.
Diesel costs Rs 79.88 (US$1.06) per litre now, while petrol is at Rs 79.76 (US$1.05). The difference (petrol > diesel) was as much as Rs 30 (US$0.40) in 2011.
That major differential, historically, was a key reason diesel cars gained popularity in India. But since India shifted to a daily price revision system for fuel in 2017, the price gap has been narrowing and diesel cars are losing their popularity. So much so that market leader Maruti Suzuki India Ltd is exiting the segment. In fact, the share of diesel vehicles among India’s passenger vehicles may fall to a decade low of 18.5% in 2020, from a record 47% in 2013, according to market research firm IHS Markit.
But that’s old news. The bigger story now is in the heavy-vehicle industry, where trucks, buses, tractors, construction equipment are all diesel-powered due to a lower per-litre cost. But the string of price hikes have put paid to that.
All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC), a body which represents 95 lakh truckers and entities in India recently stated that 65% of all trucks are parked currently due to the high fuel costs. The operations are increasingly becoming unviable as about 60 per cent of the transport operating cost is of diesel and about 20 per cent constitute toll," AIMTC President Kultaran Singh Atwal told PTI. "Already, the demand is low and the idling of the vehicles is at about 65 per cent. More and more small operators are going bust and vehicles are coming to a halt."
Have diesel cars become 'white elephants' in current times of fuel price hikes?, Hindustan Times
Lockdown or not, it’s the trucking industry that has been crucial to keeping the supply chain running, however curtailed, while passenger cars remain in garages. And as India gingerly starts exiting the lockdown, the resumption of construction activity and other industries will gradually drive fleet utilisation. But will the rising diesel price hikes let it? Or will the higher costs flow down the line to the consumer?
India’s bottom trawling of China nets great white sharks and killer whales
Bottom trawling—the industrial fishing practice of dragging massive, weighted nets across the ocean floor, scooping up every living thing in its path—is one of the most environmentally destructive forms of fishing. Because it indiscriminately catches every fish, mollusc, crustacean or even coral in its path. Bottom trawling destroys ocean ecosystems.
Often, 90% of a catch is thrown back into the ocean as “bycatch”. The bycatch could include even large fauna like dolphins, sharks and whales who just happened to get caught.
Something similar is happening in India’s tech and e-commerce ecosystem because of the country’s increasingly larger nets designed to catch Chinese investments.
Great white sharks, like Zomato—India’s leading restaurant and food delivery unicorn—are getting caught.
Zomato has been in talks to raise about $500 million since late last year. It has also got interest from both new and existing investors for the fresh round, emphasised Info Edge in an analyst call on Tuesday, as losses have come down. “The balance amount is yet to come,” said Sanjeev Bikhchandani, executive vice-chairman at Info Edge, when asked if the remaining $100 million has come in and if it will need government approval. “We are still evaluating, but the company has got inbound investor interest from other investors also who don’t need permission.”
Killer whales, like Facebook, are checking if they’re ensnared too.
Facebook (FB), ahead of its $5.7-billion investment in Jio Platforms, has sought legal advice pertaining to India’s new foreign direct investment (FDI) policy towards neighbouring countries, particularly China and Hong Kong. While the social media giant is founded and headquartered in the US, being a public-listed company it has investment from several funds based out of China and Hong Kong.
Facebook seeks legal advice on $5.7-billion investment in Jio Platforms, Business Standard
While sharks and whales get talked about, the small fish are what make up most of the bycatch that gets dumped back into the ocean, dead. We’ll have to wait and see who are the other casualties in this hunt for Chinese investments.
WhatsApp payments: DoA (Dead on Arrival)
WhatsApp can't seem to catch a break. After it announced that it is launching payments over the messaging app in Brazil, 10 days ago, Brazil’s Central Bank suspended the payment feature in the country. Brazil is the app’s second-biggest market with more than 120 million users, after India, with over 400 million users.
Watch the words of the central bank for suspending it, because I'd bet my last buck many in India are watching it. WhatsApp's payments feature has been stalled in India for over two years and hasn't taken off after its limited rollout.
The decision aims to “preserve an adequate competitive environment, that ensures the functioning of a payment system that’s interchangeable, fast, secure, transparent, open and cheap,” the monetary authority said in a statement on its website.
Brazil’s Central Bank Suspends WhatsApp Payments, Bloomberg
The words to note in the Indian context here are “competitive” and “interchangeable”. Let’s talk about the competitive part first: With a large user base of 400 million, anything WhatsApp launches is likely to become a runaway success. World over, WhatsApp users spent 15 billion minutes on voice calls a month.
WhatsApp’s might is scary. That’s why even before it launches a feature, the anti-competition arguments are readied.
Even before WhatsApp could launch payments in India, the National Payments Commission of India (NPCI), the body that runs the retail payments system, wanted to put a 33% market share cap on payments apps. There has been no decision on this yet.
As for the interchangeable part, in the Indian context, it would be interoperable. As in, if you have WhatsApp payments, you should be able to transact to someone who does not have payments on WhatsApp. But in India, interoperability is just theory. Every payment app forces both the sender and receiver to transact using the same app if you want a frictionless experience. So far, NPCI has not given payments apps like Google Pay, Walmart-owned PhonePe or Paytm a hard time for this.
If WhatsApp did the same in India, and going by Brazil’s precedence, the ball could very well end up in regulator Competition Commission’s court.
China and the changing Covid clock
Scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology in Gujarat—IIT Gandhinagar—have been busy. They’ve tested wastewater to find genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus—colloquially known as Covid in its disease form. The scientists claim that “increased ‘gene copies’ of the virus in Ahmedabad's wastewater matched the incidence of the disease in the city”.
India isn’t alone in this sewage fixation. The US, Finland, Germany, Scotland and the Netherlands are all sifting through their waste-water.
Italy, though, found something curious. According to a study performed by the country’s ISS National Health Institute, Covid-19 was swimming in Milan and Turin’s sewage as early as December.
That’s two whole months before the first case was detected in Italy.
“Traces of SARS-Cov-2 have been found in samples of waste water taken in Milan and Turin on Dec. 18 and in Bologna on Jan. 29,” said Giuseppina La Rosa, who led the research for a coming study from the country’s ISS National Health Institute. “More traces were detected in other test samples through January and February.”
The report is part of a regular round of testing on environmental virology that’s been carried out since 2007 by the ISS’s environment and health department. Overall, 40 samples were analyzed from October 2019 to February 2020 with an additional 24 from September 2018 through June 2019 used as controls.
This potentially resets the clock for Covid, putting China in an interesting spot. China, which has been claiming that the Covid strain detected in Beijing came from Europe.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has already questioned the Chinese officials’ claims that the virus was traced to the imported salmon in Xinfadi and purported origins to Europe saying that there is no evidence to back it.
It is not yet clear whether China shared the genome sequence with the WHO which had asked for it.
Ever since US President Donald Trump blamed China for not containing COVID-19 when it first showed up in Wuhan in December last year, the debate over the origin of the virus has intensified.
Coronavirus strain in Beijing has EU origins: Chinese virologists, Outlook
The Covid clock has had a few time turns so far. Last month, a patient in Paris being treated for pneumonia turned out to be a Covid case. From December.
Even in the US, the first case was considered to be one in Seattle, caught on 26 February. But autopsies on two people who died on 6 and 17 February showed they succumbed to Covid.
What does any of this mean for China—widely held as responsible for the global spread of Covid? It’s not like traces of the virus in sewage in Italy absolves China of its slow reaction time.
Yet, it could give the international boycott of China a rethink.
Digital nomadism rises in LATAM
In the world of digital nomads, Latin America is in and Southeast Asia is out.
Warmer climates and low cost of living make Southeast Asia a mecca for remote workers, but the Covid-19 outbreak has prompted a surge in countries like Mexico, Argentina and Brazil according to Nomad List—a community for remote workers that crunched the data on over 110,000 check-ins worldwide.
The site’s top 10 remote work destinations—which include Bangkok, London, Berlin and Bali—have all posted drops in check-ins.
The 2020 data provides an interesting—if incomplete—picture of the situation given the varying state of travel bans and restrictions worldwide. Then there’s the challenging job market right now. Economic reopenings and travel bubbles will likely dictate where the digital nomads flock to next.
Covid-19 has rendered human touch undesirable until a vaccine is found. In the meantime, Country Garden, one of China’s largest property developers has built the world’s first robot restaurant complex in the country’s Guangdong province.
Robots being used by restaurants to serve customers was a novelty, but in the face of a global pandemic and rising wages, a push to robotics seems rather inevitable.
Chinese restaurants started to replace their workers with robots as early as 2006. Though some have proven pretty incompetent, they're still cheaper than human wait staff — the approximate $1,200 up-front cost per robot is just a couple months' salary for an average server in China (though robot prices vary).
Country Garden claimed the robot chefs will be able to serve a meal in 20 seconds—is there any human chef out there that could compete with that? Let’s hope that by the time robots become the norm, new jobs would’ve emerged for human chefs and wait staff. Perhaps they would be supervisors to these robots?
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Beyond The First Order is a daily newsletter that analyses the complex second and third order effects thrown into motion because of Covid-19 across India and Southeast Asia. This newsletter is published by The Ken—a digital, subscription-driven publication focussing on technology, business, science and healthcare
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