Lockdown extension was inevitable but without specifics of a bailout, Modi’s speech remained anodyne
There is a visual that is far more telling than that of our pater familias Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking to his family of soldier citizens whose sacrifice, pain and toil he acknowledged. What was unacknowledged was the destitution of a man and street dogs licking the milk off the tarmac that had spilt from a tanker on a road in Agra. Nobody is disputing the fact that given India’s particularities — clustered populations, frail healthcare systems and a resource-starved management — a lockdown was necessary, even its extension. But this in the end is just a holding out operation. As the spiral of cases continues with increased testing, though it is not at the aggressive pace as is required, there is a spread that even lockdowns may not be able to prevent all too much. Yes, we have been slow in acting against the Coronavirus pandemic, we should have suspended international flights at least two weeks ago, the screening of passengers was limited to just thermal scans (the quarantine condition came much much later), the lockdown was imposed abruptly without preparation and because of still low testing, our disease burden is difficult to fathom. Although Modi countered such claims, all of which are by the way based on official data, saying India had acted much earlier than any other country, this is not the time for comparatives. There will be more deaths due to job losses, food riots and prolonged suspension of economic activity. This is anyway India’s lost year and lost opportunity. It is appreciable that Modi knows a nation ardently waits to listen to his words of wisdom in times such as these and he plays to the gallery. But he ought to have acted more like a father figure and given us an economic package that everybody was looking forward to, talked of a plan B of living with the virus till a vaccine is found, mentioned fund disbursement from all the PM’s relief funds that have been set up overnight to close gaps in the COVID-19 war room and given a directive on supply-chain management that would ensure the food reaches the beneficiaries it is intended for rather than being wasted on a hot summer day. In short, he had to be more specific than asking us to look after the old and the poor. The civil society knows what it has to do, the PM does not have to remind us of that but he needs to give us a direction that we do not know about.
The point is there was no mention of an increased GDP allocation to aid liquidity and working capital for industries that have already gone under. Other countries have done it and some experts have even suggested borrowings. Although the Opposition Congress doesn’t have much political or emotional heft now, it did raise the right questions about “targetted monetary injections; Keynesian spending, loosening the FMRB and so on.” Also, by saying that districts that do well in containing the spread might see lockdown relaxation from April 20, Modi spelt out no plan for those that are worst-hit. Are people living here to be condemned for their geographical choice or are they to be tested aggressively, treated and the infection-free made to sign up for zonal work permits with given protocols? But there was no such assurance or even interest for those locked out indefinitely. They almost seemed like being a test subject under surveillance in China. While rural harvesting and agricultural work have been resumed in places, industrial units and infrastructure projects need to be started in uninfected areas immediately. Zoning and phasing production with certified staff need to start as well. You may hold fleeing migrant labourers and daily wage earners in camps but things are not so welfarist there either. There are complaints of inadequate rations, cramped conditions and common toilets which they want to escape in the absence of gainful employment. They would rather be healthy in the subsistence economy of their village homes than risk it in alien cities and towns that were the first to turn them out. Job losses are not only about the unorganised sector, they are happening in the organised sector, too. Be it hospitality, tourism, retail majors or media, the vapourisation of visible products has meant that companies are slashing salaries, furloughing employees or retiring those on the cusp of their sunset years. Small businesses have all but wrapped up. And this is just three weeks. If indeed the spiral merits an extended lockdown, then an economic package must be in place. It cannot come in a piecemeal manner or a measured way to gain political mileage later. Modi, the PM, has to appear as everybody’s benefactor, not of his constituents. A pan-India TV speech is the best platform to do it, rather than telling employers not to sack people.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)