R.IVERS CHANGE Of course, forests ignite, glaciers melt: Raj Bhagat Palanichamy from the World Resources Institute India, a research center, has followed all these violations of the Indian landscape using satellite images. Over the past year, he has attempted to map a different type of damage, identify sources of infection, locate hospital beds, and check official death rates by examining infrared images of the crematorial fires.
The grueling number of India’s second wave of Covid-19 infections cannot be overlooked, but difficult to measure. The same applies to the burden on the economy. GDP Data for April to June will not be published until the end of August. April industrial production figures won’t be released until mid-June and will, in any case, miss the service sector, which is probably the hardest hit. The Indian government publishes a “regular” labor force survey. But Himalayan glaciers could be shrinking in the time it takes to appear. Hence the great interest in less conventional indicators of economic activity such as electricity consumption, cell phone data and views from space.
Just as satellite images can see the increased intensity of India’s Pyrenees during the day, they can capture the diminished luminosity of its cities at night. Last March, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a strict nationwide lockdown, India’s night lights darkened by 5.6% year over year, according to Robert Beyer, Sebastian Franco-Bedoya and Virgilio Galdo of the World Bank. By May 2020, India was 10% weaker. The whole country has brightened up since then. But 31 of the 36 districts of Maharashtra (including Mumbai) and all but a handful in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh shone even less brightly in March 2021 than a year earlier.
Mr. Beyer and his colleagues also used India’s daily electricity consumption statistics, which they “scraped off” from the network operator’s website. In April 2020, given the temperature and the underlying upward trend in Indian electricity consumption, consumption fell nearly 27% below what the earlier patterns would predict. Consumption finally exceeded its expected level in March 2021. However, this recovery has withdrawn in recent weeks (see chart).
The outlook for the economy for the rest of the year depends on how the pandemic develops and how the government reacts. Mr. Modi has left it up to states to decide how and when to reintroduce the restrictions on collection. The country is therefore faced with a patchwork of obstacles to movement and commingling. One way to measure their stringency is to summarize the different types of restrictions such as school closings or event cancellations. Another option is to use smartphone data to track user mobility decline. Bank Goldman Sachs has combined both approaches into a single lockdown index. It gave India a score of 87 out of 100 at its worst point last year, far more severe than the peaks seen in America (57) or even the UK (74). By comparison, the latest restrictions justified only 47 points on April 23.
Goldman analysts now expect lockdowns to disrupt the economy less than similar locks a year ago, as businesses and consumers have adapted. If India’s restrictions remain at current levels in the three months from April to June, economic activity is projected to be 2.9% lower than in the previous three months. Then when the pandemic gives way GDP could be a lot bigger this year than last. However, this says as much about the horror of 2020 as it does about the prospects for the rest of 2021. ■
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This article appeared in the Finance & Economics section of the print edition under the heading “Light, Power, Inaction”.