In the run-up to PM Narendra Modi’s address to the nation last Tuesday, there was lot of speculation that the lockdown would be eased for certain industries and the restriction would be reduced in certain regions. Several models of easing the lockdown were floated in media. But he nixed all the speculations: ruling out any respite from existing lockdown, he advocated stringent measures till April 20.
The PM stressed that it was because of the lockdown that India has had fewer cases of infection and deaths compared to the US and some of the European countries. It is for this reason, he emphasised, that it was prudent to continue with the lockdown till May 3.
However, under the specific guidelines for the extended lockdown released by the Ministry of Home Affairs a day later, farming operations, MNREGA works, transportation of goods, operation of industries in rural areas and manufacturing activities in non-containment zones have been permitted from April 20. But activities in the containment zones shall remain restricted till May 3.
With infected cases and deaths increasing daily, easing the lockdown was not a wise decision in the government’s view. It is probably why there are strict conditions to be followed by some of the sectors and businesses which have been allowed to open.
Since the PM’s chosen method of communication was one-way, instead of addressing the nation via a press conference as several leaders of other countries have been doing, lack of clarity on the government’s contingency plans and absence of a degree of reassurance to people and businesses affected by the lockdown has led to a sense of flying blind at a time when concrete steps are needed to deal with the crisis.
As a result, one wonders whether the government is reluctant or underprepared to face the challenges arising out of a punishing emergency. While the PM expressed his sympathy for the poor and workers in the informal sectors who are bearing the brunt of the hardships, we don’t have a clue about what the government is doing to help them survive in these difficult times.
Like earlier, he appealed to the businesses not to lay off workers. But there are several reports of job losses and unemployment which, according to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, has hit the high of 23 per cent.
There are also reports of stranded migrant workers, with no source of income, desperate to go home. There are workers in the informal sector who have no income and don’t have ration cards to access free or subsidised ration. Under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojna announced on March 26, 810 million poor people covered under National Food Security Act (NFSA) are entitled to get 10 Kg of wheat or rice for three months.
But the problem is the NFSA data is based on 2011 census, while the population has increased substantially over the past nine years. A recent study by eminent economists Jean Dreze, Ritika Khera and Meghana Mungikar shows that more than 100 million people are excluded from public distribution system (PDS) because the central government insists on using the 2011 figures to calculate state-wise PDS coverage under NFSA.
Ironically, while there is hunger in the streets, the Food Corporation of India’s warehouses are overstuffed with 78 million tonnes of grains. This is more than a year’s quota of ration and three times what needs to be there as buffer stock. Though another bumper crop is expected soon, the government seems reluctant to release additional food grains for the poor. If the government has the right to order people to follow the lockdown guidelines, which has severely impacted people’s livelihood, it is also incumbent on the government to take adequate steps to ease people’s sufferings. That the government has not done enough is quite evident from images of people from several parts of the country battling hunger.
When the PM addresses the nation in times of a crisis, it is fair to expect him to speak on the steps the government is taking to mitigate a large section of the population’s precarious financial conditions and ensure food for the poor, which is their right under the Food Security Act. But apart from homilies and reminders about the duties of citizens towards the nation, he has often been silent about the nation’s duties towards its citizens. We may be ahead of other countries in arresting the spread of coronavirus, but it is also true that India is far behind the world in taking mitigating measures to prevent hunger, joblessness, loss of income and a pervasive sense of insecurity. After all, if people have duties to follow, they also have certain rights as citizens under the Constitution. The government needs to make all efforts to secure people’s minimum well-being.
As the duration of the lockdown remains unprecedented, the bigger worry is that a large number of people will be pushed into poverty. Skimping on helping the truly needy will prolong economic suffering and emotional anxiety. The severity of the lockdown, the most stringent in the world, makes poor people non-medical victims of the pandemic. While the PM’s announcement of lockdown extension left many questions unanswered, the government’s response continues to lag on all fronts — public healthcare, social and economic. The objective behind a maximum lockdown is to slowdown the spread of COVID-19. But lockdown alone is not the solution to the problem. It needs an elaborate plan and effective containment strategy to stay ahead of the pandemic. Once the spread recedes, we also need a back-up plan to prevent a second wave. India’s tally of infected cases is less than 10 per cent of infections in US, Italy, France and Spain, while mortality rate is lesser than 5 per cent. But it’s too early to celebrate because we have a long slog ahead of us.
Reliable data about coronavirus is scarce. In absence of widespread testing, no one really knows how many people have or have had the virus, which would determine the rate of infection, and most crucially the fatality rate. The numerator – how many have died – is known, but the denominator – how many have caught the virus – is a matter of speculation. Most of these calculations are arguments over why the rate is likely to be much less than the medical experts may have concluded or the government may have feared. If things work out well, the lockdown will be hailed as our saviour. But the price of the pandemic and a stringent lockdown is huge, as India is fighting the virus amidst a looming spectre of hunger. As we are now discovering, the cessation of practically every commercial activity means no revenue, no ability to make payroll, mass layoff, steep decline in both supply and demand, defaults and more debts. It’s not just the small businesses that have started hurting already but big businesses as well. This brutal shock is attacking the body (the economy) that was already vulnerable. The virus load (lockdown) is bound to take a heavy toll on the economy.
The author is an independent senior journalist.