To get a better sense of these four essential capabilities in action during a crisis, let us return to India’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s lockdown was one of the world’s strictest, according to the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. Meeting the needs of all of India’s citizens required vast coordination among all sectors.
To get a broader view of how for-profit firms responded to the lockdown, we analyzed the business communication on Twitter of the major Indian corporations listed in India’s National Stock Exchange (NSE), which tracks the stock performance of 50 of the NSE’s most capitalized companies. We found that after lockdown, companies began to focus on distributing food and other supplies, and private health-care organizations came forward to support the government in providing health-care facilities, such as hospital beds and ICU units for treatment of COVID patients. We expanded our analysis further by collecting and reviewing articles from the business press and academic literature. We found that India confronted a major challenge in producing and delivering to its 1.3 billion residents, because of the severity of the lockdown, the poor pre-existing state capacity, and the country’s inadequate social-safety net.
A deeper examination of the international business press, including the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Guardian, Financial Times, and Forbes, and of the Indian business press, including The Economic Times, Mint, and The Hindu BusinessLine, revealed that firms played a central role in addressing the COVID-19 crisis and actively coordinated with other organizations.
In what follows, we describe how various organizational forms used their respective strengths in these four capabilities and came together to address India’s challenges during its COVID-19 lockdown. We especially highlight how the executives of for-profit firms played a central role in helping the government and NGOs overcome the crisis.
Producing and Delivering Essentials
While the government allowed production of essential items, such as processed foods, agricultural goods, cement, and steel, during the lockdown, firms struggled to retain the work force needed to operate their production facilities, because of popular fear of contracting the virus and lack of public transport. Several companies responded by establishing extra safety precautions, such as fumigation after every shift, use of masks and hand sanitizers, temperature checks, and social-distancing policies. Some companies even provided their own transportation and/or lodging facilities to workers to continue production, albeit at a lower capacity.
Firms also confronted the task of distributing the essential goods they managed to produce across a country under strict lockdown. India’s retail sector, which sells the majority of essential items, is largely unorganized—dominated by nearly 13 million kirana shops (traditional mom-and-pop stores). These shops are typically supplied by an intricate web of wholesalers, distributors, and manufacturers spread far and wide. To ensure the distribution of essential goods, firms had to coordinate with central and state government agencies and administrators overseeing the nationwide lockdown. Companies such as Britannia, Parle, PepsiCo, Hindustan Unilever (HUL), Dabur, Coca-Cola, ITC, Nestlé, and Mondelez wrote to the government through three separate industry associations, seeking immediate exemption from movement restrictions for delivery of essential items, on the very first day of the lockdown. The central government granted the exemption and coordinated with the respective state governments to transport essential goods across states.
To ensure delivery of goods to consumers, e-commerce companies such as Amazon, Flipkart, and Grofers ramped up their essential product lines, including food and grocery items, and transformed most of their storage, distribution, and delivery capacity to meet lockdown guidelines. As distributors of several fast-moving consumer-goods companies struggled because of a shortage of drivers, Amazon India’s logistics came to the rescue and began supplying local kirana stores through next-day deliveries. This step not only ensured supply to kirana stores but also reduced their in-bound delivery lead times from four days to one day. In addition, these stores, which could not get shipments from their traditional suppliers during the lockdown, could place a single order with Amazon for most of their bulk purchases. This arrangement led to improved efficiencies, such as lower costs and less managerial and labor time. Amazon proactively entered into arrangements with food delivery companies such as Swiggy and Zomato, which had swaths of unused capacity because of a ban on cooked-meal deliveries.
Reliance Jio, a large mobile network operator that caters to more than 50 percent of India’s internet users, entered online retail with Reliance JioMart just before COVID-19 hit the country. JioMart focused on delivering grocery and daily essentials, linking small mom-and-pop stores to local customers—a need that became urgent during the COVID-19 lockdown. To help meet the increased demand for online groceries, Reliance JioMart contracted with local kirana stores across 200 Indian cities to offer them merchant point-of-sale devices to help manage inventory and working capital, maintain digital records, accept digital payments, and file returns.
Managers of e-commerce companies and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) distributors also worked with government-owned Indian Railways to ramp up their inbound and outbound logistical capacities. Several NGOs and civil society organizations pleaded with local and central government officials—in some cases even reaching out to courts through public-interest litigations—to ensure that the lockdown would not disrupt India’s food and agriculture industry. They pushed to allow essential workers to travel for harvesting and to help with the storage and processing of food.
India’s daunting challenge of producing and distributing essential goods during the lockdown was surpassed only by the urgency of providing health care to the nation’s sick. The unprecedented scale of the pandemic and India’s history of poor investment in public health meant that the national government simply did not have adequate means to ramp up health-care capacity to meet demand. Companies and civil society organizations stepped into the gap to ensure adequate supply of ICU beds, personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer, face masks, and ventilators.
Three of India’s top automakers Maruti Suzuki, Mahindra, and Tata Motors committed on April 1 to manufacturing 50,000 ventilators by May 2020, through partnerships with medical device manufacturers such as Skanray and AgVa Healthcare. Mahindra also collaborated with public-sector entities, such as defense manufacturer Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and engineering firm Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL), to reduce the manufacturing cost of ventilators and automated Ambu bags, through design simplifications and production scale-ups. Mahindra also sourced a design for face shields from its partner Ford Motor Company and began making them in its auto plants in Mumbai. In addition, auto-components manufacturer Krishna Group volunteered to make components for ventilators and face masks, while vehicle-seat manufacturer Bharat Seats helped produce PPE.
Indian automakers and their suppliers were not unique in taking these steps. US and European companies also devoted their production and procurement capabilities to making ventilators and PPE for frontline medical workers. In the United States, for instance, companies as diverse as Tesla, Crocs, Bacardi, and 3M helped to produce PPE and sanitizers. India also needed help to distribute the stream of health-care production. E-commerce companies chipped in to bridge delivery gaps. For instance, Amazon India delivered PPE, soaps, sanitizers, and detergents to hospitals and doctors, free of cost.
During the second phase of the lockdown, from April 15 to May 3, when several private labs and hospitals offered testing and treatment of patients, the Indian government contracted a few companies for RT-PCR test-kit production to increase testing capacity. Apollo Hospitals the largest private hospital chain in India, with 10,000 beds added 500 ICU beds and planned to expand to 5,000 more, if necessary. Apollo also activated the supplier networks of its 3,500 pharmacies to procure the necessary items to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, such as face masks, PPE, medicines, and ventilators. In addition, Apollo ramped up its telemedicine services by networking more doctors from its offline hospitals onto online service platforms, to reduce the patients’ need to visit hospitals.
Several large, medium, and small companies from the Indian corporate sector coordinated their pandemic relief efforts through the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), an industry association, and its initiatives, such as the CII Foundation (CIIF) and Young Indians (YI). CIIF is a charitable trust CII set up in 2011 to support social and development initiatives across India, while YI is a nonprofit established in 2002 to promote the country’s youth leadership and economic development. CIIF, through CII’s presence across many local districts in 28 states of India, provides a bridge between marginalized communities and corporate-sector donors. YI, on the other hand, includes young (21-45 years old), progressive Indians, including entrepreneurs, white-collar professionals, and achievers from different walks of life. Companies felt comfortable contributing money and material toward COVID-19 relief through these two organizations, because they typically had members and officers in one or both, and because the organizations possess office branches, chapters, and/or affiliate NGOs across many regions of India.
Immediately after the government announced the lockdown, CIIF and YI got to work. In collaboration with CII regional and state offices, CII Indian Women Network, India Business and Disability Network, and other CII-affiliated associations, they partnered with government officials in each district and township (taluka), to create awareness about the best hygiene practices, including the importance of handwashing and social distancing. They also distributed hygiene kits, rations, and other daily essentials. Through this coordinated effort, Indian corporations managed to provide dry rations and cooked meals across 28 states and food for more than seven million people. They also distributed relief through community kitchens across 23 different cities and supplied more than 1,700 metric tons of food grains to those in need. In addition, they donated soap, hand sanitizer, face masks, face shields, and PPE to vulnerable populations and frontline workers in police, district administration, and health-care departments. With the support of industry, CIIF also set up tele-ICU centers across nine government hospitals in Maharashtra and Haryana to offer 24-hour remote ICU patient monitoring, as a stopgap for the growing physician and nurse shortage. All of these relief activities helped some of India’s most vulnerable communities, such as the disabled, nomadic tribes, lepers, farm laborers, widows, and migrant workers.
To help Maharashtra and other states severely affected by the pandemic, ideaForge, an unmanned-aerial-systems company, deployed drones to help police forces impose security surveillance and monitor social distancing within communities. From civil society, volunteer groups like Coronathon.in, which called itself “India’s COVID-19 Online Hackathon,” sprang up overnight to enlist thousands of technology developers from India’s tech businesses and health-care industry to build dashboards, platforms, apps, and other tools to help reduce the pandemic’s impact on India. Among other things, they developed a COVID-19 dashboard for state chief ministers; created platforms that connected PPE donors, recipients, and suppliers to bridge the gap between supply and demand; and designed an app to help hospitals better manage the influx of COVID-19 patients.
The Need for Greater Collaboration
India’s COVID-19 experience demonstrates how various for-profit organizations filled in gaps opened by the country’s lockdown gaps that NGOs and the government could not hope to fill on their own. But as welcome as they were, business-led interventions were quite ad hoc in nature and at times arrived too late.
Our investigation of India’s pandemic management demonstrates the need for greater collaboration between various organizational forms and across sectors. To systematize such reforms, we propose a generic framework to help stakeholders collaborate to meet the immediate needs of a crisis more quickly and efficiently.
1 Jiao Luo and Aseem Kaul, “Private Action in Public Interest: The Comparative Governance of Social Issues,” Strategic Management Journal, vol. 40, no. 4, 2019.
Haritha Saranga, Professor of Production and Operations Management at Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB),
Prateek Raj, Assistant Professor of Strategy at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB) and the IIMB young faculty research chair.