In the past seven weeks of the total lockdown, most of us have been offered free webinars for everything from sculpture to baking, how to improve our business, become explosive digital marketers, and super salespersons. Apart from the self-improvement opportunities, there have been some industry-related webinars. Of the four webinars that I have registered for, three were related to packaging. Two of these concerned the Indian packaging industry and were organized by exhibition companies – Messe Dusseldorf India and Reed-PackPlus, respectively.
The first of the two webinars took place on 27 April and was, I think, it is fair to say, a bit hastily organized by Messe Dusseldorf India, and I was the moderator. The second, held on 28 April, was quite elegantly arranged and well in advance by Reed-PackPlus. The moderator was our design and marketing columnist Deepak Manchanda. I was a bit wary of taking part in this hasty bit of gamesmanship, but the organizers assured me that they would put together some panelists and took some of my suggestions to bring in a couple of new names. In any case, given the constraints, both the webinars went off reasonably well and revealed a great deal of the overall enthusiasm and concern of the Indian packaging industry. There is an upbeat feeling that the industry is contributing to national good in a time of stress.
The MDI-Interpak webinar on 27 April attracted at one point something like 630 online participants and the Reed-PackPlus something like 1150 or 1200. Thus it is clear that there was a great desire of the packaging community to take part in these events.
I think (and you must accept that I am biased) that the MDI webinar discussed the issue of the Covid-19 lockdown in a fairly balanced way. In the discussion of how the economy and industry will emerge from the pandemic and the lockdown, there was great unbridled optimism from Amit Banga of SB Packaging and some pushback for realism and moderation from Akshay Kanoria of TCPL. In answer to Banga’s admirable intent to be positive, Kanoria said there were many unknowns and that although one should hope for the best, it would be wise to prepare for the worst.
Similarly, the discussion on automation went from being inevitable and advantageous to a more nuanced answer by the young Kanoria, who said that automation CAPEX is rarely evaluated merely by looking at the return on investment (ROI). On the issue of sustainability taking a knock from the economic compulsions of reviving the industry, the answers were also equivocal. Yes, sustainability may take a hit.
In contrast, the Reed-PackPlus webinar not only drew a larger audience but had younger and more varied panelists in the main. The panelists shared slides as they spoke. However, this panel consisted entirely of optimists who trotted out the usual mush about India replacing China in terms of investment, the Indian demographic dividend, and the country’s super GDP growth.
I think that the GDP and packaging industry growth data was outdated and not based on any credible or up to date research or what has been happening on the ground in the packaging industry. It was a bit like the self-congratulatory online revival meeting of a sector which needs to feel good about itself and its prospects. Other parts of the webinar that discussed automation were insightful, although one-sided. The presentation by a converter on innovation and sustainability at the end was excellent. And when a panelist was asked if the compulsion of reviving the industry would put sustainability on the back burner, the answer was unreservedly in favor of the continued priority of sustainable packaging.
Unfortunately, there is not going to be any demographic dividend. There cannot be any dividend without investment. Our government’s investments in both education and health are dismal at around 2% of GDP in each. Secondly, the Indian economy has been in trouble for 7 quarters before the Covid-19 lockdown. The GDP growth for FY 20-21 is now forecast by rating agencies and global institutions as anywhere from between 0% and 1.9%.
The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have revealed to us the power of working from home, blue skies not seen in the cities since the early 1980s, and that there are other possible ways of doing what we have been doing by rote. The lockdown has also again revealed the vast and inexcusable inequities of our country that need to be overcome.
The question is whether we take the fresh opportunity to think anew and take up the difficult challenges. Will we put sustainability in every sense ahead of costs and inequities? Or will we once again take the short cuts, and soon be back where we started?