When the news of the coronavirus appeared on the horizon in late December/early January, the government of India had its task clearly cut out. The first was to prevent the virus from entering India. The government took it easy and the first imported case was recorded in India on January 30. Yet, we refused to wake up. The government had its compulsions: the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh had to be dislodged, Trump had to be given a grand welcome. So, it was 'business as usual' until the third week of March. Then the government started acting as if in panic, without thinking. It did not carefully study the models of other countries and declared a nation-wide lockdown on March 24, as many as 54 days after the first case was reported and after lakhs of people had been allowed to come from abroad with only a cursory thermal check. The number of corona positive cases on March 24 was 564.
We did not think things through while declaring the lockdown just as we did not think things through before announcing demonetisation and launching the GST. No rocket science was needed to understand the impact of the lockdown on daily wage earners, migrant workers, the small and marginal farmers, the street vendors - the poor generally who live on the margins. The first 21 days of the lockdown were over on April 14. The number of cases by then had reached 10,363 with 339 deaths. The Prime Minister had assured the nation on March 24 that defeating the virus was going to take a little longer than the 18 days it had taken for the Mahabharata war. His self-assurance was misplaced as was his comparison with the epic. So the lockdown was extended by another 19 days to take the total to 40 days, the exact meaning of quarantine. Yet, there was no stopping the spread of the virus which was now galloping. So we extended the lockdown again by another 14 days which will end on May 17. Meanwhile, the virus is racing to touch the one lakh mark.
On May 13, the Finance Minister started her daily media briefings on the Rs 20 lakh financial package announced by a day earlier by the Prime Minister. I had expected that the first words from her would be "migrant workers". But that was not to be. She did talk about other things but not a word was said about the migrants. That was hugely disappointing. The PM a day earlier and the Finance Minister a day later did not have even a word of sympathy for the suffering of the migrants. Some day, when all this is over, which is the most powerful image of this period which is going to stay with us? Of migrant workers with their small children, some of them only a few days old, walking thousands of kilometres to their homes; of rotis spread on rail tracks where more than 15 of them were crushed under the wheels of a goods train, of kids whose parents were crushed to death by a speeding vehicle. The most abiding image of the Vietnam War is of a little naked girl running away from the explosion behind her. But the government, specially the PM, had no word of sympathy for them, not even for the dead. Will India forget it in a hurry?
The Finance Minister did talk about them the next day on May 14, almost as an after-thought and after the government was roundly criticised for its insensitivity. This came 51 days after the first lockdown was announced. 51 days of untold suffering, privation and misery. But yet, let us congratulate the government for thinking of the migrants even belatedly, though now many more of them are the carriers of the virus.
The supply of two months' ration to them is welcome. So is the idea of one nation, one ration card. The concessions given to the small traders, small farmers, street vendors, etc are also welcome. I also welcome the announcement to make India into one common market for agricultural produce. But many of these are long-term measures and the proof of the pudding would lie in the eating. Some state governments have been feeding the workers. NGOs have also been doing so. But perhaps the first act of the government of India should have been even belatedly to announce that whatever it takes, it will see to it that not a single migrant is left on the roads of India within the next 24 hours, that the armed forces, the central paramilitary forces and all other agencies and means would be pressed into service to ensure they are provided with transport, food, medical care and above all dignity to reach them home. If the armed forces can be used to shower flower petals on the corona warriors, surely they could be used to take home the workers still on the roads. But, you need empathy for that, not chest-thumping.
What is it that the government should have done right at the beginning of this crisis but has not done so far?
1. It should have given sufficient money and food grains to states to feed the poor and the migrants.
2. It should have made arrangements to pay from its coffers the wages and salaries of migrants for at least three months so that they could stay where they were.
3. It should have made arrangements to take them home if they still wanted to return.
4. It should have immediately raised the allocation for MNREGS so that state governments could provide them with jobs. The Rs 20 increase in MNREGS is too meagre, it should be raised by Rs 50. The 100 days restriction on employment should also go.
5. It should have launched an urban employment guarantee scheme.
6. It should have given income support to unemployed, educated youth.
7. It should have granted loan remission for the small and marginal farmers and to the other farmers to the extent of Rs 2 lakh.
8. The Rs 20-lakh crore package should not have been merely an aggregating exercise, it should have really put money in the hands of the poor in the quickest possible time. At present, there is nothing more than hope for a 'trickle down' through loans which may be availed of.
9. There should have been a conscious attempt on the part of the government of India to build national consensus by involving Chief Ministers and political parties. There should be no assault on 'federalism'. I was surprised to find that while many of the steps announced fall squarely in the states' domain, they have not been consulted in advance or given funds to discharge their duties. They have not even been given what is due to them like their GST share.
The budget presented on February 1 is in tatters; neither the receipt figures nor the expenditure figures have any relevance any more. What the Finance Minister has been doing over the last few days is to serially present a new budget. The time has come to formalise it and take the first opportunity to present a new budget.
Yashwant Sinha, former BJP leader, was Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004)
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