March 29, 2020

Lockdown: What about the People?

THERE have been two national broadcasts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding the tackling of the coronavirus pandemic, yet there is no economic package still from the government to meet the imminent economic recession and the massive disruption to the livelihoods and incomes of the people.
The second speech of the prime minister on March 24 announced a countywide lockdown for 21 days. Before imposing such a drastic step, it was the responsibility of the government to put in place measures to protect the economic enterprises and provide relief to the people who would suffer a total loss of income. But nothing of the sort was done.

In his first speech on March 20, in which the prime minister had announced a “Janata curfew” on March 22, he had also stated that a task force on the economy headed by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has been constituted. But there has been no outcome from this venture. Given the urgency of the situation, one would have expected some announcements on this score in the prime minister’s second speech five days later.

The only announcement in his speech was the allocation of Rs 15,000 crore for the health sector for getting more ventilators, personal protective clothing and isolation wards in hospitals. But there was no mention of more test-kits and expansion of testing which is lagging far behind.  This funding has come 53 days after the first coronavirus case was registered in the country. Doctors and nurses around the country have been complaining of the lack of protective equipment.  This should have been taken up on a priority basis. The amount sanctioned is very inadequate given the enormous step up required in health infrastructure. The centre should provide liberal grants to the states for this purpose as health is a state subject. This pandemic should at least now open the eyes of the central government and most of the state governments to the folly of neglecting public health care and promoting the privatised health sector.

The enforcement of a total lockdown for three weeks is necessary according to health experts to stop the spread of the infection. But the manner in which it is being done is callous and heartless given the reality that a large part of the population is left with no income or resources to feed their families and buy essential goods. The plight of the workers in the informal sector, daily wagers and casual workers is dire. There are over 39 crore workers in the informal sector and most of them have been rendered jobless. Before confining them to their homes, the government should have ensured free rations for them and some income support; Rs 5000 could have been put in Jan Dhan accounts.

Migrant workers in their tens of thousands have been stranded unable to go home even before the lockdown. The centre has no concern for them.

It is only some state governments which have announced relief measures. Notable is the LDF government of Kerala which has provided free rations for all BPL/APL card holders for a month, payment of pension arrears and advance payment and providing mid-day meal kits to children’s homes. Moreover, in Kerala, jobless migrant workers are being shifted to centers for stay, provided free rations and medical check- ups.  Delhi, Punjab, Tamilnadu and some other governments have also announced cash transfers or free rations.

As for workers in the organised sector, the prime minister, in his first speech, appealed to employers not to terminate employees or cut their wages. The labour ministry had subsequently issued an advisory on these lines. Such pious wishes will not work. The government must issue a notification protecting jobs and benefits in both the private and public sector. This should cover contract workers too. Even the Conservative goverment in UK has drawn up a scheme to pay 80 per cent of the salaries of employees of companies who may find it difficult to pay for them. This will be for a period of three months and could be extended.

There has to be financial packages to assist badly hit sectors. But when extending such help it must be conditional on their not resorting to lay-offs and salary cuts. For instance the aviation sector needs help but they cannot avail of such assistance and resort to retrenchment as Go Air has done or salary cuts by Indigo. Above all, the centre must provide more funds to the states and raise their borrowing limits.

In the past few days, prices of vegetables and other essential commodities have shot up in many cities. The central government has to in conjunction with the state governments ensure smooth movement of supplies of essential commodities especially inter-state transfers. Already reports have come of bottlenecks and obstruction of goods and materials at checkpoints.

That there has been no adequate thought and preparations for the lockdown is shown by two omissions in the official guidelines for the lockdown. Among the government departments listed for functioning and not to be closed, health and food and civil supplies are missing. How can the vital health sector and supply of essential commodities be effective if these departments are not to function? There are also no guidelines for the agricultural sector during the lockdown which concerns production, transport of crops, vegetables and fruits, their storage, distribution etc.

What is paramount, however, is that the Modi government come out forthwith with a comprehensive package of measures which is anti-recessionary and will provide monetary support and essential food supply for the working people, particularly the poor and vulnerable sections.

(March 25, 2020)