Mr PM, Can We Move Beyond Announcing A Task Force?

Now that the clapping and clanging of utensils is over, the question is when will the Prime Minister and his government act to provide the essential physical and social infrastructure for our country to successfully tackle the Covid 19 virus? While governments of other countries have taken steps, in India we are still at the stage of Task Force discussions.

While India applauded its health sector personnel, the truth is that the essential personal protective equipment required to keep them safe is highly inadequate. Reports of the meeting on March 18 of representatives of the Textile and Health Ministries and manufacturers of the equipment, put out in the public domain, show the shocking if not criminal gaps in government planning and execution. There is a huge gap between the numbers of masks, gloves, eye protection , hazmat cover up suits required by health personnel and their availability. Even though it was clear that India needed urgent preparation to meet the challenge, the government spent the whole of January and February in its pursuit of a hate-filled agenda rather than a health concerned one.

In the vast areas of rural India, it is the rural health workers, the ASHA and ANM workers, who are at the frontline in reporting and dealing with any such cases. These thousands of workers, paid a pittance, have not been provided knowledge, training or the equipment to deal with the crisis. Yet if India does reach the dreaded third stage of community transmission, they will be the most important personnel at the primary health centre level to deal with the crisis.

Till now, the only step taken by the Centre through the Janata Curfew is to message the importance of minimal human contact, or the newly-coined phrase of "social distancing". To me, the phrase itself has strong class and caste connotations- the social distance between the richest and the poorest, the social distance between the upper castes and Dalits- these examples of social distances have a more permanent nature embedded in social and economic systems that are predominant in our world today. Regretfully, these class and caste-based social distances seem quite paramount in the present way that our central government is looking at the Covid 19 crisis. With the drastic measures of lockdown, mandated by health experts as essential for Covid 19-related social distancing, what is going to happen to crores of Indian workers who can eat/survive only if they work, in the course of which human contact is inevitable? When the government forcibly shuts down all avenues of work, it is duty-bound to provide alternative means of survival.

India is already in a recession. Unemployment rates are the highest they have been in four decades. Low purchasing power of the mass of people reflected in a lack of demand has been recognized and identified as the key issue, even by experts earlier employed by this government, which must be addressed. In the employment patterns in the labor market today, the dominant form of work is daily waged work, contract or casual work, work in the unorganized sector, as well as a big section of self-employed Indians. Also, India has a large number of female-headed families. These have been identified as among the most vulnerable to even the smallest shifts in traditional patterns of income generation, such as agricultural manual work, daily manual work, construction work. The labour chowks, where men and women congregate from early morning even in cities like Delhi, hoping to be picked up for work, are deserted. Migrant workers are forced to go back to their home states in a mass exodus knowing that they will be without any work or income.

Lockdown has meant that these workers have suddenly been deprived of any opportunity to find work.

Any strategy for minimal human contact to prevent the spread of coronavirus must address on a priority basis the needs of this vast mass of people who have no savings to fall back on. It is cruel and callous to ask this large section of the population to stay home without making adequate arrangements for them. The working poor need a subsidy to stay home.

You don't need to be living in a socialist country to ensure this. Across the world, capitalist countries have recognized that it is not just a moral requirement but makes sound economic sense to pump money into the economy to prevent a market collapse. Countries are putting in place policies backed by funds for an economic stimulus. True, most of these policies are designed to help private firms and businesses through easy loans, postponement of tax payments and so on. In the US, the Trump administration-designed package which is far too generous to bailed-out businesses has been opposed by the Democrats who say there is not enough for workers and the poor. But even in the US and other countries, in most such stimulus packages, there is a component to protect the poor. 25 countries are allocating funds for direct cash transfers. In the US, 1,200 dollars are to be transferred for a set of eligible beneficiaries. The amount for poorer sections is 600 dollars; in Australia, the cash transfer is 750 Australian dollars; in the UK and in Germany, it is the government which will cover 70 to 80 per cent of wages of workers to prevent layoffs; Brazil is giving a cash transfer of 38 dollars to all informal sector workers. This is apart from increased pension payments, food coupons and other such measures in many countries to compensate the workers for staying home in the larger social interest.

Here in India, all we have is a task force - that is it. Even as state after state declares a lockdown, the interests of those who will most suffer have not been recognized by the central government, leave alone addressed. It is true that some states have announced relief measures. Kerala had provided the example of a more sensitive and humane policy with its package of 20,000 crore rupees including free food grain and subsidized food, cheaper cooked meals, home delivery of mid-day meals for school children and so on. Other states also have subsequently made some announcements of this nature. It is an indication of the priorities of the Modi Government that it is yet to come up with any policy measures backed with funds. The first priority should obviously be a big allocation to states to handle the situation. On the contrary, an earlier decision to permit states to utilize the funds under the State Disaster Management Account has been reversed and disallowed.

It is absolutely essential for the central government to start without further delay a cash transfer programme to unorganized sector workers and the rural poor. The data base is available with the government and can be routed through Jan Dhan account holders. A minimum of 5,000 rupees per account as a first step would bring some immediate relief. If the lockdown is prolonged, the amount will obviously have to be increased.

Another crucial requirement is for stepping up food grain allocation through the PDS including a component of free food grain for a specific period. India had 7.5 crore tonnes of food grains in government godowns as on February 1, 2020. Instead of allowing these grains to rot, it would be appropriate to step up allocations to the states free of cost. Pensions for senior citizens, for widows and the disabled must be increased.

Some economists on national TV have argued that India does not have the money for any such programmes. The government had written off 2.54 lakh crore rupees of bad loans by public sector banks last year, mainly taken by corporates. In the same period, the government has made a windfall through the imposition of higher duties on petroleum products even though global, crude oil were much lower. Fiscal deficits do not count when it is for giving freebies and subsidies to the rich and powerful.

Of course we have the resources, what we need is the political will. For a successful mobilization of I.3 billion Indians to overcome the coronavirus, the government needs a policy that will utilize national resources to reduce the social distances that exist and to bring confidence to the working poor that their survival will be guaranteed by the central and state governments even as they implement the policy of lockdown.

Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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