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Monk who wants to rev up a Ferrari; Yogi Adityanath as unlikely poster boy of economy in a pandemic

Abhijit Majumder

Last Sunday, two days before Narendra Modi's speech announcing a range of measures to boost Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME), it seemed the prime minister's train of thought had taken a long halt at Lucknow station before reaching Delhi.

A statement from Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath preempted what was about to be announced nationally. His government announced a gift basket of loans, easy clearances and a single-window format for MSMEs.

"We will accept this as a challenge and make the state the hub of the MSME sector. This will provide employment to people at the local level with minimum capital, minimum risk," the statement said.

You don't associate flowing gerua clothes with economic poster boys. But from India's most populous state (think of the populations of Italy, Germany and the UK combined) is slowly emerging a monk who wants to rev up the Ferrari.

Yogi Adityanath is turning out to be Indian economy's unlikely poster boy. He has shown a commonsense approach to issues which few dogmatic pundits on the Right or Left have. He is working to convert a full-blown pandemic into an opportunity.

Adityanath is the son of an Uttarakhand forest ranger. He completed his BSc in Mathematics before initiated into the life of a sanyasi at 21. He eventually became the head priest of Gorakhnath Matth, but those who work with him say he never lost his way with numbers. It's tough to bamboozle him with numerical jugglery.

Late last week, his government gave Rs 202 crore to 56,754 individuals and units under MSME funds. Not a massive amount, but he reckons it would bring nearly 2.5 lakh jobs, with an average of five people per unit. The state has unveiled MSME Sathi, an app for single-window clearances.

Adityanath is among the first chief ministers to grab business flying out of China, the alleged originator and chief spreader of the coronavirus epidemic. US president Donald Trump has openly declared a trade war on China, the European Union (EU) is furious, and Japan has drawn up a $2.2 billion incentive for its companies to wind up China operations.

A coalition of 62 countries including India on Sunday backed a joint Australian and EU push for an independent inquiry into the outbreak ahead of a crucial World Health Assembly meeting on Monday in Geneva.

In this scenario, Yogi has moved to organise webinars with stakeholders starting April. About 100 foreign companies are in talks with the state to shift base there. The Jewar airport project is being fast-tracked to be completed with two-and-a-half years, especially its cargo wing built and made operational as soon as possible.

The state has set up separate US, Japan, Korea and Europe desks. It has already conducted two webinars attended by international business councils and EU governors.

Last year, before the COVID-19 twister hit the planet, Adityanath had predicted that Modi's projected $5 trillion economy will pass through the hinterland. He seems to have preempted Modi's recent 'vocal-for-local' call. He went about tending to the small things methodically.

Uttar Pradesh started a One District One Product (ODOP) initiative which harnessed local tradition, art and enterprise. The government started channelising effort into developing zari-zardozi from Saharanpur, black pottery from Azamgarh, furniture from Maharajganj, and ghee from Auraiya, for instance.

Now, the state is trying to bring investment into each district's pride. Interestingly, Thailand has a similar initiative running from mid-2000s. It is called One Tambon (sub-district) One Product, or OTOP. The Thai government now wants to sync Uttar Pradesh's ODOP with its own OTOP and set up some sort of a trade-and-tradition exchange.

While chasing business, Adityanath kept a tight check on handling of the pandemic and its tragic fallout on migrant workers with a firm hand.

He implemented the lockdown and social distancing with an iron hand without any favours to a particular religious or social group. He organised thousands of buses to bring home a hapless labour force €" statewise India's largest.

If investments and industry make Uttar Pradesh their address, Adityanath could turn a punishing pandemic and a harrowing homecoming of workers into the state's enviable strength. The dispossessed, dejected and jobless may never have to venture out. They may find worthwhile employment just a cycle ride from home.

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