GUEST COLUMN : How the new normal will change our lives

Thursday, 21 April 2022 | Krishan Kalra | Dehradun

The Covid pandemic is hopefully on its way out and everyone is looking forward to getting back to some sort of normalcy. Much has been written, spoken and discussed on the pandemic’s impact on various spheres; how it has ruined the economy of most countries and this debate is likely to continue for a long time. Most of us are hoping that the so-called ‘New Normal’ will free us from all restrictions – on travel, socialising, work, shopping, entertainment, cultural events, sports et all – and we will once again get back to business as usual. Sadly, it is not going to be so! We seem to be missing out on a crucial factor that has brought us face to face with the infection and no one is sure if that will disappear with the universal vaccination drive. Here one intends to reflect on that and then explain the possible scenario of a realistic ‘new normal’.

Famous environmentalist David Attenborough has beautifully explained the relationship between the pandemic and another much debated subject of climate change. In an engaging short video he puts it down to the phenomenon of “the human race encroaching upon and appropriating the space meant for animals, birds, reptiles, insects and other species” and how some of these species are getting dangerously close to human habitats – in a sort of poetic justice to reclaim what was always theirs. Man’s ever expanding ambition, seemingly insatiable appetite for more, wanton consumerism and unchecked desire to possess more of everything – ‘greed’ to put it crudely – is at the root of all this. The 93 year old naturalist’s recent Netflix documentary ‘A Life On Our Planet’ has jolted the world from complacency and set people, communities and countries realising that “our planet is dying by our hands” and set them thinking how to slow down and stop this suicidal act of humanity. He strikes a balance between the urgency of the situation on the one hand and also offers a sense of hope on the other. He has a vision for the future and tells us the means by which we can “right our wrongs”. My own take home from the film, very briefly, is that we must learn to live with less.

Before I talk about the corporate world, industry and the national economy let me start with our own wardrobes and our homes. Have a critical look at the clothes, shoes and personal accessories each one of us owns; how many of these we haven’t used for, say, one or two years? Perhaps 50 per cent will easily fall in that category. Most of us have become impulsive buyers – we see a friend wearing a nice shirt or a suit and go rushing to the mall to pick up something similar without giving a thought to whether we need it or not. Once at the stores, a couple of pairs of new shoes or a jacket or another shirt catches my eye and we get back home with several shopping bags. Of course women are several steps ahead in this department, they hoard much more than men. How can any self-respecting woman be seen twice in the same outfit in the same crowd? The new acquisitions are worn couple of times and then consigned to the back of the almirah as soon as one is out for another shopping binge. Why do we do that? Vanity or ‘keeping up with the others’ or retail-therapy for the over stressed but certainly not for catering to our needs. Flashy advertisements, fake ‘sales’, high voltage promotions by the manufacturers and brand owners only add to our craving and we give in.Same thing holds good for other personal acquisitions like watches, expensive pens, sun glasses, mobile phones and, of course, cars and sports motorcycles. Also for household goods like bed-linen, crockery, silverware, crystal, decorative items et all; we buy these not because the old ones are no longer good but only because we want to possess the latest offerings in the market and, of course, it feels good to have pretty things around to show off to family, friends and the social circle.

Peer pressure is a huge contributor; so, why not? I have the money and every right to splurge. True but please consider that everything one buys – even a shirt – uses precious resources like water and energy and leaves a carbon footprint making mother earth that much poorer. If only we can become a little more circumspect and buy less, we will cause lesser damage to the planet – our only home in the vast universe.

As a start, I checked my own hoard in April/May 2020 and decided to not buy or accept as a gift any clothes, shoes and accessories at least till the end of March 2022. The way things are going I would perhaps extend this to 2025 barring maybe a pair each of slippers and sneakers and some underwear. And I am sure I am not alone in making this resolution. Others are probably giving up bigger comforts and more vanity items. Even Zandra Lindsey Rhodes – the 80 year old high priestess of Britain’s fashion world – has gone on record, during an interview with an Indian journalist, saying “going forward it won’t be spend-spend-spend. If we are to keep the world going as we know it, we will have to do it differently. Scaling down the industry is inevitable and desirable”. Coming from such a big designer, it gives us some pointers about the shape of things to come. After all it is the designer fraternity that creates dreams for the rich and the famous and eggs them on to their insatiable spending spree.

Let me now move on to business and industry – the corporate world. With Covid came the concept of ‘Work from Home’ (WFH) and, surprisingly, lot of companies seem to have discovered the merits of this. People work flexi hours, they save time spent on commuting – up to four hours in some cases – and the resultant fatigue, they don’t really have to dress up for office, they can help with house work, spend more time with the family…there is seemingly no downside to this. Barring factories and a few jobs involving ‘essential personal contact’ nearly 25 per cent of all workforce will perhaps continue with WFH even after some sort of herd immunity is achieved. Really a win-win for the employers and employees. Many corporates have already surrendered large areas of rented office space, those with their own buildings are swelling or renting out. MD of CISCO India recently mentioned in a press interview that his company’s 16,000 employees who were working out of a 25 acre sprawling complex are now operating from 109 towns across the country. Worldwide CISCO has closed numerous offices and given better tools and technologies to employees so that they can collaborate remotely. They are moving away from the concept of pouring huge amounts of money into real estate. Of course there are challenges. WFH means missing out on emotional bonding, team building, creating personal relationships and trust and companies are suggesting various options to employees for working together virtually on fun things like exercise and book clubs, cooking, board games, making care-packages for the underprivileged. Real estate industry is rightly worried but there is demand for space by the new businesses that have emerged – delivery services, video chat platforms like Zoom, edu-tech firms, technology startups, research labs for health care and other sectors. There is enough opportunity for real estate companies in the national infrastructure building area as well as affordable housing. Green buildings, more efficient HVAC systems, reimagined packaging to reduce waste and pollution, electric cars and two wheelers would all help to reduce pressure on the planet. To quote RPG enterprises chairman Harsh Goenka, “The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted an urgent need to create sustainable economies – India can take a lead in earth-friendly businesses and consumer strategies. We can’t just continue living as if there was no tomorrow, because there is a tomorrow.” Well said, sir, if only we do not kill that tomorrow with our consumerist culture of always wanting more of everything.

And, to top it all, our drive to change from fossil based energy to that from renewable sources – already amongst the fastest in the world – must continue and pick up even greater speed. At the same time our agriculture has to transform. We just can’t carry on with the hugely inefficient irrigation systems and water guzzling crops which we don’t even need.Environmental degradation and lack of inclusivity are perhaps the two biggest challenges before the world today and it is more than likely that both will be addressed by the corporate world as they move on with life in the post-pandemic era. Our new normal will and should lead us to a better world.

(A veteran of the corporate world, the author now does only voluntary work in various spheres. Views expressed are personal)

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