Smoke and mirrors in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic

Published : March 26, 2020 23:15 IST

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman addressing the media to announce a package of measures to help the poor in view of the lockdown, in New Delhi on March 26. Photo: Ravi Choudhary/PTI

On the second day of a nationwide lockdown which has brought the Indian economy to a standstill, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman unveiled a Rs.1.7 lakh crore relief package that is likely to prove too little too late. Days after Prime Minister Modi announced the setting up of a special task force for the economy, there is still no sign of a coordinated attempt to protect those most vulnerable to the lockdown. Unpacking the package reveals a niggardly approach to protecting India’s poorest millions from the pandemic that stalks them.

The package, which carries a name that has an ironic ring to it—Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana—apparently touches all the right bases. But the point is whether the Finance Minister has indulged in tokenism in the face of a looming health emergency that threatens to escalate quickly into an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. First, households that are already entitled to receive grain at subsidised rates from the public distribution system would be given an additional 5 kg free for the next three months. This is absolutely the right thing to do, but the nature of the crisis implies that this would be grossly inadequate. It is estimated that under the onslaught of an Aadhaar-based regime, about one-fourth of rural households and half of urban poor households, many of them migrants, are outside the pale of the subsidised foodgrain delivery programme even in the best of times. Disturbing images of hopelessly poor migrant workers, with women and children in tow, trudging 400-500 km from cities across northern India towards their homes are an indication of how many are outside the scope of the Finance Minister’s scheme.

Nirmala Sitharaman also announced that Rs.2,000 under the PM-KISAN scheme would be released immediately. The lockdown has hit farmers hard because they are now engaged in harvesting or on the verge of harvesting their crop. The shutting down of supply chains, accompanied by the high-handedness of the police, has hit them hard. The Rs.2,000, which is merely the first of three instalments to be paid, was anyway due in April. The magnanimity of the Minister lies in the fact that she expedited it by a few days. It would have been far better to have front-ended the entire payment for the next financial year; after all, it makes no difference to the Minister’s budget. But even more interesting is the fact that the PM-KISAN scheme, when announced by Modi in December 2018, was expected to cover 14 crore marginal farmers. The Finance Minister now says there are only 8.69 crore such framers in the country; what happened to more than five crore marginal and small farmers in India since the launch of the scheme? Either the regime does not know how to count its farmers, or it scales the numbers down so that it excludes so many of them. Vijoo Krishnan, Joint Secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha points to the paradox prevailing now: while farm gate prices have collapsed because the supply chains are broken, the disintegration of the chain has resulted in skyrocketing prices in the urban consuming centres.

The announcement that the MGNREGA wage rate would be increased by Rs.20 for a day’s work by rural workers is worse than a cruel joke. Prof. R. Ramakumar (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai) points out that in 2019-20 the scheme generated 258 crore person days of employment. If their wages were topped up by the additional Rs.20 per person day, the additional outgo for the government amounts to Rs.5,160 crore. Krishnan points out that even this is illusory. “Where will these rural workers work in a nationwide shutdown?” he asks. The fact that many of these workers have returned home from cities to be closer to the relative safety of their homes and families only aggravates the problem. Instead, Krishnan calls for the payment of an unemployment allowance to all those holding MGNREGA job cards and paid a wage of Rs.300 a day or the minimum wage prevailing in the State, whichever is higher.

The Finance Minister’s move to directly transfer Rs.500 a month over the next three months to women Jan Dhan account holders reflects not just a niggardly approach but also a mindset that is oblivious to the lives and livelihoods of millions. First, direct transfer may sound nice and quick, but in the specific conditions of a pandemic the biometric verification methods or long queues at banks would defeat the purpose of the lockdown. Second, since accounts held by women make up roughly half the Jan Dhan accounts, why could the move not have been extended to all? In a situation where informal and casual work has collapsed in rural as well as urban areas, emergency relief ought to have been far more substantial. A similar unwillingness is revealed in the ex-gratia payment of Rs.1,000 each to poor pensioners, widows and the disabled. That this paltry sum is to be paid in two instalments over the next three months to three crores of India’s most vulnerable speaks volumes of the regime’s concern for them in this calamitous hour. A similar subterfuge is shown in the Minister’s phrasing of the proposal of the Ujjwala Scheme. She said free cooking gas cylinders would be provided for three months, without actually spelling out how many cylinders would be available free.

The Finance Minister’s package is in direct contrast to several other measures that have been suggested by academics and social activists in recent days. A crucial element missing in the package is support for any immediate and urgent provision to provide cooked food in a manner that maintains the objective of physical distancing while at the same time reaching food to the most needy. Scenes in several Indian cities show that physical distancing norms have been brazenly flouted as desperate people scramble for food. Significantly, there is nothing in the Finance Minister’s scheme about delivering cooked food to households. This, and the modalities of delivering the extra grains she announced today, would require a measure of coordination with the States.

Significantly, the stubborn refusal to cooperate with the States has been a hallmark of the Modi regime’s approach from the time the risk of the pandemic hitting India first surfaced in January. And, with time running out, there are fears that it may be already too late. As India fast approaches a national health emergency, it is clear that the Modi government is still working in a disaster management mode. Nirmala Sitharaman’s latest move shows how wrong the Modi government has got it in terms of sequencing its response to the crisis. The relief package she announced on Wednesday ought to have been initiated before the lockdown came into effect. The package, implemented in coordination with the States, would have possibly ensured a more controlled implementation of the lockdown.

The writing is now on the wall: if the regime further endangers the lives of India’s most desperately poor, there is a grave danger that they will be compelled to take even greater risks. And, if that happens it would defeat the very purpose of the lockdown. It is obvious that the Indian elite is oblivious to the cost that will accrue from its brazen abandonment of India’s poor.

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