Why do people still call Delhi unsafe

Christoph Kessler, KfW office manager in Delhi, returned home in the summer for security reasons. Here he describes the particularly critical situation in India and explains how Germany has so far been able to help the subcontinent in the fight against the corona pandemic.

For some time now I have been observing the infection process in India from home in Germany. The corona situation in Delhi had eased somewhat in the summer, but it worsened again in September. Both in the metropolitan areas and in the rural areas, the curve of recorded new infections goes steeply upwards. The availability of hospital beds for severe disease courses remains uncertain.

Until our involuntary farewell at the end of June, my wife and I were right in the middle of the action and also experienced bizarre situations on the day of departure: Hundreds of passengers waited for boarding in white disposable coats, with face masks and face shields. Four hours before departure they had to arrive at Indira Gandhi International Airport, one of the busiest and most hectic airports in Asia. But that day most of the shops were closed, there was nothing to eat and nothing to drink. Nevertheless, people seemed relieved because the few Lufthansa flights that went from Delhi to Germany at the end of June were immediately booked out online.

On March 24, Prime Minister Modi, surprisingly and with just four hours of warning, imposed a lockdown on the entire country, and in the same week the KfW office in Delhi went into home office mode. The registered number of cases was still very low in India at that time. They wanted to react early in order to contain the further spread of the pandemic. A massive slump in the economy was accepted, with devastating consequences, especially for the poor. As the pressure from the suffering population grew, the government had no choice but to reopen the economy in early June, although the curve was not yet flattening. On the contrary, the number of infected people grew slowly but steadily throughout the lockdown period. With a bare eye, one had to allow the curve to become considerably steeper as a result of the unlocking of the lockdown.

KfW in India

In no other country in the world is KfW Bankengruppe as committed as in India. The KfW Development Bank division, for which Christoph Kessler works as office director in Delhi, DEG and KfW IPEX-Bank primarily promote the development of a sustainable infrastructure. This ranges from the financing of rail transport to power lines, solar and wind parks to the promotion of energy-efficient housing construction, environmental protection measures or improvements in the health care system. Projects worth 10.7 billion euros are currently being supported in India.

4.5 million registered Covid-19 infected people in India

As the head of the KfW office in Delhi and a German living in India, I have followed the recommendations of the German embassy closely since the beginning of the pandemic. The embassy's own regional doctor assessed the situation at the beginning of June in such a way that, in an emergency, a hospital bed including intensive care would be accessible for Germans through the mediation of the embassy. This assessment changed on June 12th. Now it was said that even in private clinics one could no longer count on adequate treatment. Thereupon the embassy recommended all Germans whose presence on site is not absolutely necessary to return immediately.

Three months later, the number of registered Covid-19 infected people across India has been over 4.5 million since the outbreak, over 75,000 of them have died; a very small proportion of the total population of just under 1.4 billion. Even if a lot of attention is paid to this key figure in the media, it is undisputed that the actual number of infected people is many times higher. Until recently, only patients who were already showing symptoms of an illness were tested, and even of this group, many did not even allow themselves to be tested - often for fear of the measures taken by the authorities, such as forced quarantine in improvised camps. Samples from mid-June suggest that over 30 percent of the population in the capital Delhi is or has already been infected. The rural regions of India are also increasingly affected. With the migrant workers who have returned, the virus has long since reached the villages. The infection rates are also increasing there.

Read on under the picture gallery.

Project work under difficult conditions

15 Indian colleagues work for the KfW office, which continues to function reliably thanks to the well-developed network infrastructure in the capital. They are now at home at their computers and can take care of their families at the same time. At each of our weekly office meetings, which have been taking place virtually since March, the first thing I do is ask about your state of health. Fortunately, not a single employee has contracted Corona yet. But we notice that when video conferences and telephone calls replace physical meetings, personal contact with Indian partners is neglected. That must be accepted for a transitional period. In the long run, however, business relationships are burdened, because business meetings in India are always framed by small talk. This creates closeness and trust, which are important when difficult loan negotiations have to be successfully concluded under time pressure.

Such situations are not uncommon. In India, KfW finances predominantly large infrastructure projects on behalf of the German government, in the recent past around one billion euros annually: solar power plants, green electricity corridors, metros, e-buses, ferries, sewage treatment plants, to name just the most important project types. A lot of contracts come together every year. And because of the many bodies involved in the project, all of which have to agree to the loan agreement, the negotiations are dragging on.

Due to the pandemic, the implementation of the projects is now also being delayed. Many construction sites stand still or are running on the back burner. Let's take the green power lines, which are supposed to transmit sustainably generated electricity to the metropolitan areas: In the middle of Rajasthan, an Indian construction company set up a work camp in order to erect electricity pylons over many kilometers, build transformer stations and pull lines from there. With the lockdown at the end of March, the camp was closed. The workers had to go into quarantine, in a large hall in the nearest small town. They stayed there for three months, provided they were poorly provided with the necessities of life, but without work and a plannable income. Above all, the distance from their families in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh is a problem for many, despite WhatsApp and the occasional phone call. No wonder, then, that after the lockdown was relaxed, many workers immediately made their way home and - deeply suspicious and insecure - stayed there for the time being. In this situation it is difficult for the building contractor to find workers to get the construction site going again.

KfW's work in India has picked up a gear as a result of the pandemic. In the current portfolio, the Indian partners are asking for corona-related difficulties to postpone payments, waive fees or expand the purpose of the loan. This usually leads to tough negotiations, because it is not uncommon for Corona to be cited as a reason for delays that have completely different causes.

In addition, KfW is asked to do all it can to support the government in overcoming the crisis. In mid-March I received a call from a senior official in the Indian Treasury. On behalf of the Prime Minister's office, he was urgently looking for funds to procure emergency equipment for hospitals with corona patients: masks, gloves, disposable gowns, but also oxygen dispensers and ventilators. Is it possible to divert funds from ongoing projects that have not yet been used? Is it allowed to reprogram projects that have already been put into contracts but have practically not yet started? Are there additional funds from the German government for the fight against Corona?

Aid programs against the social consequences of the pandemic

Together with Unicef, it was possible to create an aid program worth 15 million euros in record time. This enabled some of the urgently needed equipment to be procured. A subsidized loan from federal funds of almost 500 million euros supports the Indian government programs that serve to cushion the social consequences of the pandemic: Subsidies for staple foods such as rice and lentils for the poorest, work programs, health insurance for poor population groups. Other development banks, such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the French AFD, also support these programs, bringing together billions of euros in external funding. A visible sign of solidarity for a subcontinent that has had to cope with numerous other destructive events such as cyclones, heat waves of up to 50 degrees Celsius and harvest-devouring swarms of locusts in recent months.


This article was published in CHANCEN autumn / winter 2020 "Hunters of the Virus".

To the issue

I have been head of the Delhi office since 2017; there has never been such an accumulation of disasters during this time. This suffering hurts. India is a fascinating country in every respect with enormous potential and a professional challenge that I consciously chose. When will it be possible for me and my wife - she is a teacher at the German School in Delhi and last taught online - to return to India? Of course, that depends on how the pandemic develops. After a temporary decrease in the number of corona sufferers in the capital, the infection rate is picking up again there. At the beginning of September, some speak of a second wave. So we're still on hold. Only when it is clear that adequate medical care is guaranteed again in an emergency can I resume my work on site in Delhi.

Followed up on October 27, 2020

A lot has happened in India since September - fortunately with a different trend than in Europe. The number of infections in the country seems to be stabilizing at a high level. Many people have adjusted their lives as much as possible to the pandemic situation: the streets are filling up again, masks are worn almost everywhere and distance rules are mostly observed. The partners' offices are also working again and meetings are increasingly taking place physically again, while adhering to hygiene rules. For me, the focus is on the question of how we can shape a new normal in the KfW office in Delhi. It is true that we have proven in recent months that we can also mobilize large sums of money for our Indian partners as a virtual team in a short period of time. Nevertheless, it is clear to me: my place in shaping this new normal is in India.

The presented project makes a contribution to these sustainability goals of the United Nations

Around eleven percent of the world's population live in extreme poverty. In 2015 there were about 836 million people. They got by on less than $ 1.25 a day. The global community has set itself the goal of ending extreme poverty completely by 2030. Source: www.17ziel.de

All member states of the United Nations adopted the Agenda 2030 in 2015. Its core is a catalog with 17 goals for sustainable development, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our world should be transformed into a place where people can live in peace with one another in an ecologically compatible, socially just and economically efficient manner.

Published on KfW Stories on October 27, 2020.