COVID-19 update

Tamil Nadu: Financial crunch & fatigue

Published : July 22, 2020 19:00 IST

Street hawkers in Chennai on July 22. The lockdown has wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of such low-wage earners and their families. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

Nurses attached to the Omandurar government hospital in Chennai taking a break on July 16. Over 1,500 government and private nurses are involved in the fight against COVID-19 in Chennai. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

A worker disinfects a line of autorickshaws in Egmore on July 8. Photo: R. Ragu

The State grapples with a lack of finances and the fatigue of frontline workers in the battle against the pandemic, even as the people struggle to make ends meet amid economic decline.

On July 16, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami told the media that the State’s COVID-19 case count was likely to reduce in 10 days. On that day, the number of fresh cases was 4,549. After a slight fall to 4,538 on July 17, COVID-19 infections kept rising, clocking 4,807 cases on July 18, 4,979 on July 19 and 4,985 on July 20.

The total number of COVID-19 infections had crossed 1.75 lakh as of July 20. In mid-April, the Chief Minister had said the infection would be controlled in just three days. Then too, the number of COVID-19 cases soared. Among the infected are high-profile persons such as 16 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), Coimbatore Collector K. Rajamani and Kancheepuram Collector P. Ponnaiah, and four Ministers, two of whom have recovered.

The latest high-profile case is that of the family of Health Secretary J. Radhakrishnan.

By July 20, the number of deaths totalled 2,551. Ministers have been pointing out that the death rate was relatively low in the State. But the worrying fact is that the the total number of deaths was only 1,201 until the end of June. The number of deaths zoomed in the first 20 days of July after several fatalities were reported from the districts, many of which do not have tertiary care facilities.

Lack of finances

Bureaucrats and health professionals said that the lack of finances to fight a relentless battle against the disease and the fatigue of the frontline workers were major issues facing the State. Political parties and professional organisations said that the continuing restrictions on economic activity were taking a huge toll on daily wagers and those who had lost their jobs.

On June 26, the Chief Minister said that Tamil Nadu’s fiscal deficit could touch Rs.85,000 crore this year owing to the pandemic if the existing trend of revenue shortfall continued.

“There is literally zero coming in by way of GST [goods and services tax] for about five months,” said an official. “On petrol, even before State governments could react, the Centre hiked its excise rate, leaving us no room for any manoeuvrability at all,” he added.

Palaniswami had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi several times on making more funds available to the State to fight the pandemic. Representatives of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have said that the Centre has made available Rs.25,000 crore to Tamil Nadu, but representatives of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the ruling party, have maintained that even the GST arrears have not been paid in full.

The State had resorted to market borrowings and has already tapped into most other available sources. In the first four months of the pandemic, Tamil Nadu has already spent over Rs.12,000 crore on fighting COVID-19, said an official involved in tackling the pandemic.

“Almost all State governments are in the same boat, with minor variations,” said an official who worked for almost a decade with the State Finance Department.

Burden on people

The State’s financial problems have affected different sections in different ways. At a meeting on July 21, conservancy staff of the Chennai Corporation demanded a raise in wages, on par with COVID-19 staff. “We do the most difficult job of all. We are paid only Rs.10,000 [per month] while the COVID staff, who go from house to house, are paid much more,” said a temporary conservancy worker.

Opposition parties claimed that a majority of the workforce has been out of work for nearly five months. The government has given ration card holders cash assistance of Rs.1,000 each twice and also provides free rations, but many said this was inadequate. “I am a bus driver. How long do I have to stay without a job? I am not looking for doles. I want work. What work can I do? I have tried a few things such as selling vegetables,” said a driver in the Anna Nagar locality in Chennai.

Most autorickshaw drivers and a host of people from other trades have turned to selling fruits and vegetables because most jobs and trades were not permitted during the initial months of the lockdown as they were not considered essential services.

After restrictions were lifted, the autorickshaw drivers have resumed plying their vehicles but complain that there are fewer fares. “I used to make Rs.700-1,000 per day. Now, if I get Rs.100 over and above my expenses, I should be happy,” said an autorickshaw driver in the Mogappair neighbourhood in Chennai.

Unorganised workers have been the worst hit during the lockdown and after restrictions were lifted. Opposition parties alleged that the welfare measures announced by the government had not reached those badly affected. On July 21, tailors affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) protested across the State claiming that they had not received the welfare amounts promised.

Electricity bills

Apart from these issues, electricity bills came as a shock to many people. The Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) workers did not take the bi-monthly reading in June and the EB decided to take the average of the previous four months to calculate the rate.

The opposition DMK staged protests across the State on July 21, demanding that the State government stop fleecing the public. In his reply to the DMK, Electricity Minister P. Thangamani said that because the bi-monthly meter reading was not taken, the units consumed for four months were considered and the average for the bi-monthly rate calculated. Of this, 100 units were free.

In a case related to this issue, the government informed the High Court that some 93 per cent of the people had paid their bills.

“If I use 420 units in this period, the government will divide it as 210 units each as the bimonthly consumption,” said K. Kanagaraj of the Tamil Nadu unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

“For this, the EB cost will be Rs.520. But if this is divided as 200 units and 220 units, the total outgo from a consumer will be Rs.460. Because the government divides it equally, a consumer is forced to shell out Rs.60 more for no fault of his. If the consumption is 1,020 units and divided equally, instead of dividing it as 500 and 520 units, the consumer loses about Rs.600. Is this fair? It is not the consumer’s fault that the government did not take the reading. This happens at a time when people are really struggling,” he added.

The government has also ordered that cooperative banks should not extend gold loans, even though people across sections are in deep distress and there is no relief in sight.

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