August 23, 2020

Hollow on Health, Jobs and Economic Revival

THE prime minister’s speech on Independence Day was watched with anticipation to see if he would announce any new initiatives to deal with the health crisis caused by the pandemic and the related economic crisis which has resulted in large-scale loss of jobs and livelihoods.

On both counts, the speech disappointed.  In the past six months, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the pathetic state of public health care in India.  Over the decades, successive governments have neglected public health and government expenditure on health is barely one per cent of GDP.  With the pandemic still raging in India, one would have thought that the Modi government would have learnt a salutary lesson and, at least at this late stage, announced a major public health initiative with adequate funding.

But what was announced by the prime minister was a digital health card ID for all,that will link up medical records of each person. This bypasses the real problem which is the lack of medical facilities and personnel from the primary health level to the tertiary sector in the public health system. What the prime minister should have announced was a health infrastructure plan of at least Rs 1 lakh crore for the states and centre with the aim of expanding and upgrading the public health system.  However, the BJP government cannot think outside the framework of privatised health care – a dogma to which it is bound.

The economy, which had considerably slowed down before the pandemic struck, has now gone into a tailspin ever since the lockdown was imposed. Experts are predicting that the GDP will contract ranging from 5 to 10 per cent for 2020-21. The effect of the deep recession has been large-scale loss of jobs, shutting down of small businesses and substantial parts the services sector.

The plummeting of demand and consumption is going to further deepen the crisis.  The loss of incomes is going to lead to the erosion of savings.  The only way out of this is for the government to step up public expenditure and investment in a big way.

Modi’s speech from the Red Fort gave no such signal. The government has doggedly refused to increase public spending by transferring cash benefits to the people.  Except for the Rs 1,500 given to women Jan Dhan account holders over a period of three months, the government has refused the demand of the opposition parties to transfer Rs 7,500 to all non-income tax payees.

There was no mention in the speech about the lakhs of people who lost their jobs, of people who have lost their livelihoods, or, those whose incomes have been severely daunted.

The only announcement made was of the Rs 1.10 lakh crore National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP). This NIP, which is to give an overall thrust to infrastructure development, was actually announced by Modi in the 2019 Independence Day speech. This is a five-year plan which is more of a long term character. There were no announcements of any investment expenditure in immediate terms.  Though the speech harped on atmanirbhar Bharat repeatedly, it is clear that the government is banking on more FDI and private investment.

In fact, the pandemic period has been used to push through more concessions for foreign capital and big corporates. Steps for outright privatisation of public sector enterprises across the board have been announced. The draft Environmental Impact Assessment will result in a dilution of regulatory norms to facilitate the loot of national resources by the foreign and domestic corporates causing great harm to the forests and the environment.

The speech showed no awareness whatsoever of the social impact of the pandemic.  A whole generation of school students from deprived socio-economic backgrounds face a future with no prospects for education and many will drop-out.  The New Education Policy touted by the prime minister as a new beginning has no answer for this.

Since the last Independence Day, the policies of the Modi government have taken a more regressive turn.  Modi, in his speech, lauded the dismemberment of Jammu & Kashmir as ushering in new rights for different sections of the people of J&K; he hailed the process of delimitation for a truncated assembly. There was no mention of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the NRC process which has undermined the secular definition of citizenship.  His reference to the Ram temple construction at Ayodhya was cast in hypocritical terms of how it testified to the maturity of all sections of the people.  Reading between the lines, it expressed satisfaction that the Muslim minorities have reconciled to this display of Hindutva triumphalism.

The prime minister struck a positive note regarding the need for peace and harmony in South Asia. This was in contrast to the usual diatribe against Pakistan.  He stated that it is the responsibility of the leaders of the countries of South Asia to build an atmosphere of peace and harmony.  Considering how relations with our neighbours have been soured in the past one year, the injunction would apply first and foremost to Modi and his government.  While India has joined the Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan have joined the Belt and Road Initiative.

Prime Ministers’ speeches on Independence Day have become somewhat like a state of the nation address. This year, the 86-minute speech of Modi hardly touched upon the real issues and challenges faced by the people and the country and, as is his wont, was more of a campaign-style speech.

(August 19, 2020)