Deep Kalra, founder of MakeMyTrip, says once the corona crisis is over, one should delete the app.
NEW DELHI: Deep Kalra is well known as the Founder of MakeMyTrip. But a lesser known fact is that he and his team played a key role in developing the Aarogya Setu application. In an exclusive interview with Priya Sahgal, he explains why the Prime Minister called this application the game-changer in fighting corona, and also about the challenges facing the travel industry during lockdown. Excerpts:
Q: Congratulations on Aarogya Setu. Is it the game-changer we’re looking for?
A: It is probably the most unique and special weapon that we have against Covid-19. We’ve got a lot of support from the government. I think this is one of the best examples of a public-private partnership.
Q: Explain how the app works.
A: The app works on a very simple principle of bluetooth. The bluetooth is your proxy for proximity. If you download the app and keep your bluetooth on, whoever you come in close proximity with, unwittingly or otherwise, gets tracked. God forbid you test positive, there will be a very easy way to trace back all the people you came into contact with. As we all know, asymptomatic people can be carriers for Covid-19. The app will be very helpful once the lockdown is lifted, and people start going back to work. The best thing that can happen to you is that you get an early warning signal that you need to be extra cautious because you came close to someone who has now tested positive.
Q: I downloaded the app. A lot of it depends on your honesty. The app asks for a self health test where I say that I don’t have temperature, or any other symptom. Supposing I’m lying, how does that work?
A: The self-diagnosis is only one aspect of the app. That is for yourself to test. If you’re honest, you’ll get an honest answer. But the real magic of the app is what happens behind the scenes. That is the tracking and tracing of the app using bluetooth technology. That is the real power of the app. It’s not only a self-diagnostic.
Q: Tracking and tracing are dangerous words. That’s when the privacy brigade gets really worked up.
A: It’s fair to say that a lot of people have concerns about it. But it’s also fair to say that 70 million people have downloaded the app. We’ve got to step back and understand what we’re facing. We’re in the middle of a very scary situation. If you’re going to part with a little bit of information and its much less information than we share on our social media sites, mapping sites, they know exactly what we are doing. It’s only during this time of the crisis we are asking people to turn the bluetooth on, so that you can be traced back. What would have happened without the app? If I test positive, I would have been made to sit down by a medical officer and retrace my steps over the last two weeks or more and tell them who all I got in touch with. Then the medical officers will try to contact all those people. That’s not a foolproof system. You’re going to have a lot of gaps, a lot of people you can’t remember, or even people you didn’t know at all but came in contact with. So just for the period of this crisis, the request is you download the app. First, you’re totally free to delete the app when you want. Second, when the crisis is over you should delete the app. Third, the only information you’re really giving away is where you’ve been, which is kept on your phone till the time you test positive, or you came close to someone who tested positive. So the overall privacy debate in my mind is really blown out of proportion.
Q: I also remember you telling me that the data gets purged after 30 days. It does not store data permanently.
A: Thank you; I should have mentioned that earlier. There is a complete wipe-out and kill switch after 30 days, where all data is purged.
Q: So it is a debate of right to life vs right to privacy.
A: You’ve put it very well.
Q: The naysayers, however, are saying that this is what happened with Aadhaar. You also said this is voluntary. Aadhaar was voluntary. Later, it became necessary for public distribution, or if you want benefits from the government, DBTs. They will make it mandatory in some way, that is the fear.
Q: How do you find working with the government? We came up with this app at breakneck speed, it was up and running by the first week of April.
A: It’s been a unique experience, and very heartening to see the alacrity with which our government has moved. The sponsorship they were willing to give private enterprises. I think it has been a wonderful coming together of private enterprises, different departments of the government, and also academia. The support that we are getting from some of the leading professors of the country— IIT Chennai, IISc, as well as the Principal Scientific advisor himself. Prof Vijay Raghavan was actively involved with all aspects of the app. This can be a model going forward as well.
Q: How do you see the way forward? When do you see travel starting again?
A: That’s a 6 million dollar question. The reality is, no one does. It is for authorities to decide what point of time will be deemed safe to fly, and to travel again. I don’t think flights are going to take off anywhere before June. I think we’re going to be very watchful and careful throughout May about any public places that we can avoid. Though the lockdown has definitely helped flatten the curve, the real issue will be when we lift the lockdown.
Q: Do you have a plan in mind for how we can start lifting the lockdown?
A: I have a few suggestions that we are discussing with industry players. I think essential travel will come back first. People who have emergencies. Doctors who have to get to some parts of the country will be given precedence. Trade and business has to start. I saw a video of how Mumbai airport is getting ready for social distancing. Masks will be mandatory for a long time to come. There is another suggestion on space between two seats on a flight. We will have to see how that will be dealt with as it won’t be viable for airlines.
Q: I had a conversation with Ajay Singh of SpiceJet. His said that the middle seat vacant doesn’t really fulfil the 6 feet social distancing norms. One suggestion is people wear hazmat suits, masks etc while flying.
A: Let’s go back to basics, what do we know about the disease and how does it spread. It’s clear that it spreads either through contact, or if you’ve touched a surface where strains of the virus were present, or you touch a person who’s Covid positive, and then you go and touch your mouth or nose. That’s how it spreads. There is no other proven way that it happens. So technically, if you were to adhere to all the precautions, coronavirus should not spread.
But the reality is that it has been proven, the closer people are packed together in public spaces, the higher the risk and chances of it spreading. Also, it is practically impossible not to touch your face at least once in an hour or two hours. That is why masks become so important. It really is for specialists to figure out the right norms. Which part of travel do I think will come back first? I think on the leisure side is the driving holiday. I think people will be ready to drive for more than the 4-6 hours, people will be ready to drive for 12-12 hours to get to a secluded place. Perhaps a resort, villas, perhaps homestays, where you feel very secure and sanitised. We’re talking to various hotel chains and our homestay partners about this.
Q: According to you, what are the sectors that are going to pick up after this? Which ones will take a hit?
A: Let’s be very clear, travel is going to be down for a long time. But when it comes back, it will come back with a bang. People are wired in such a way they need to get out and they need to travel. When I ask the people around me, what are you waiting to do the day the lockdown ends, everyone’s saying they want to get out of their houses, they want to go for a holiday. When will that happen in an unfettered manner? I think it’ll happen only when there is a vaccine or a cure. When that happens, all these fears go away. Public memory is short, and people will be back, just like they were post 9/11, or post the SARS epidemic. We have had bad epiidemics before and the world has sprung back.
Beyond travel, it is pretty obvious that videoconferencing, teleconferencing, OTT platforms—all of these have become very very popular. I also think drone-based delivery will be looked at far more seriously. The reality is that the last mile was people still have to go out for some essential services. Automation can take care of that. As for me, if I were to put my money on something, it would definitely be more R&D. Science has let us down. We should have been able to foresee some of this. There were early warnings, we should have reacted faster on vaccine and cure development. The world has lost too much waiting for that to happen.
Q: In terms of the economy, however, we were already hit badly before this virus hit us. We weren’t doing very well. So how do you see us picking up? As the private sector, are you expecting the government to help you out in terms of more grants?
A: As a sector and industry, we’ve been putting forward proposals on why the travel and tourism industry needs help in different areas. People at the bottom of the pyramid run the risk of losing jobs. Our industry is highly fragmented. While we typically think of large airlines and large hotels, the reality is that we have more than 9 lakh small travel agents and tour operators employing close to 4 crore people. That’s a lot people, and these are small operators who given the tough situation are not going to be able to keep paying their bills. Perhaps the government can come in with some support and the employer gives some support. Secondly, we have asked for tax holidays on GST, TCS and TDS, We want a full year of tax holiday. The government has announced a moratorium on loans. We’re actually asking for soft credit, working capital loans to tide over this period to cover our fixed costs. The PM had called for each Indian to see 15 new destinations by 2022. That should be dovetailed with an incentive. That people spend on domestic tourism and that amount can be set off against their tax. That will be a big boost.
Q: Finally, what have you been up to during the lockdown.
A: Our business is keeping us busy, as well as the app. One of my exercise tips is climbing stairs. I climb about 54 floors every day so that I can stay fit.
Q: Is it easy to download the app?
A: On Android, you can find the app on play store, or an app store for the Apple. Just type in Aarogya Setu, press download and you can register very quickly. You get an OTP and you’re ready. And then keep your bluetooth on. It’s extremely easy.
Q: And we won’t live to regret it, you’re saying.
A: Well said.