Though the country is beginning to move gingerly towards an eventual exit from the lockdown, there are still no clear indications whether the coronavirus pandemic is receding. Last Saturday, for example, saw the biggest single-day jump of 2,411 COVID-19 cases.
Given that on Monday, May 4th, a number of curbs are set to be lifted to ease life of people hard-pressed by the lockdown, the above fact ought not to be ignored by those pressing for an early return to normalcy. Indeed, with the death toll standing at 1,223 on Saturday, it is hard to decide whether, on balance, there is merit in early resumption of normalcy. In a way, it will be hard to return to pre-corona ways since it has impacted almost every facet of human activity in several significant ways. Social distancing may still be the norm even after a full opening until we have a vaccine ready to kill the virus. Public places such as restaurants, bars, cinema halls, auditoriums, etc. will take a long time getting back to the old normal before the corona epidemic. How and when barber shops will open since men of a certain age need to visit them every few weeks is still unclear.
Why should the authorities keep the e-commerce majors tied down with highly restrictive conditions raises disturbing questions. If the ‘essentials’ can be delivered at the doorstep, why not allow them to deliver everything else also? We espy a deliberate attempt to make it harder for the two foreign-owned e-commerce majors to operate in the country, given that earlier in the year the rules were most arbitrarily altered regarding taxation and other such things to make life difficult for them. This should be avoided in the larger interest of the economy. By creating roadblocks in the path of those who invest billions of dollars in India, we discourage other potential investors. Desi and foreign money in this sector must be accorded a level-playing-field. There should be no attempt to tilt in favour of the local promoters of e-commerce platforms. Anyway, at least during the lockdown the services of the e-commerce companies need not have been denied to millions of people who, due to the lockdown, were unable to access the neighourhood kirana stores and markets.
Having said that, we still await the promised package of incentives for the small and medium entrepreneurs. There is no clarity about the payment to workers for the lockdown period by tens of thousands of employers in the private sector. Confusion persists on rent payment by tenants of privately-owned residential, commercial and industrial properties for the lockdown period. Instead of further burdening the already snail-paced justice delivery system, the central and state governments should jointly decide on these issues. Clear-cut guidelines on the liability of tenants during the lockdown period must be issued forthwith. In fact, the earlier central government directive enjoining upon private employers in the industrial and commercial sectors to pay full wages for the lockdown period had evoked resistance, causing them to approach the courts. It has since been rescinded. Therefore, the need to be fair and just, instead of being populist, cannot be exaggerated.
Meanwhile, once the pandemic recedes from the front pages, the States are bound to get more insistent on seeking financial assistance from the Centre. Though, without doubt, the finances of most State governments are further stressed by the lockdown which deprived them of precious revenues, say, from the sales of alcohol, petrol, diesel, etc., and made them bear the additional burden due to the fight against the coronavirus, it is nobody’s case that the Centre itself is flush with funds. It is not. It has had to rely on the central bank to issue bonds and other such measures to bolster its precarious finances. GST collections, for instance, during the lockdown period are bound to touch a record low. Besides, it will be foolhardy to raise income and corporate taxes at this stage given that the capacity of the payers has also been hit by the economic disruption. Raising income and corporate taxes will prove counter-productive anyway, failing to raise additional revenue but nonetheless causing the flight of funds from the country and encouraging tax evasion.
In sum, once the threat from the pandemic is over, the Centre will confront a lot more tough challenges, requiring it to traverse a tough path between populism and economic prudence. Hopefully, it will choose the latter.