Is it time for this nationwide lockdown to be lifted? Is it time for our scientists to start examining why the pandemic is following a very different course in India than it has in most other countries? Is it time to admit that our economic problems are now infinitely more serious than those caused by this Chinese virus and we must somehow learn to live with it and deal with other things? These are questions to which I have no answers but believe that they need to be answered urgently.
When the first nationwide lockdown was ordered, I believe it was probably because scientists and virologists of international repute were predicting that hundreds of thousands of Indians would soon be lying dead in the streets. They invoked the Spanish flu to remind us that more than half its victims were in India. Now as we approach the last week of our second lockdown, it appears that their predictions were alarmist and that the Indian economy could be in greater danger than the Indian people. Sceptics say that it is only because we have not tested as widely as we should have that the extent of this pandemic’s victims has not become clear. Possibly. But, what is also true is that if hundreds of people started to die every day in the slums of Mumbai or even in those villages to which migrant workers have fled, we would know.
Speaking of migrant workers, it is worth pointing out that unless they return to the factories, sweatshops, small businesses and construction sites where they were employed, there is no hope of a revival of the economy. An early revival is what we badly need, but here it needs to be pointed out that the government of India is not doing itself any favours by making stupid rules. The Home Ministry which has been mercifully silent since the pandemic hit is suddenly hyperactive. So first came the rule that only those businesses would be allowed to reopen that were prepared to house all employees inside their premises. Then came the even more ridiculous rule that if a worker was found to be suffering from coronavirus after work restarted then the employer would be jailed. This was so stupid a rule that attempts have been made to clarify that this only applied to deliberate negligence. And, who will decide this?
This is a good time to remind the Prime Minister of one of the things he said that made me support him with all my heart in the early months of his first term in office. Remember how he used to say that ‘government has no business to be in business’? Well, as someone who truly believes this, it won my total support. Sadly, in the past six years there has not been the smallest sign yet that Narendra Modi meant what he said. In some matters the exact opposite has happened, in the form of a company law that seeks to interfere in the minutest details of doing business. Unsurprisingly, this led to almost no new jobs being created and to the Indian economy going back almost to what used to be once derided as the ‘Hindu rate of growth’.
This pandemic provides an opportunity for the Prime Minister to go back to those promises he made when his first term began. It is time to throw that book of rules, regulations and red tape into the garbage and time to make those changes to labour laws and land use that are long overdue. It is time to make the sort of reforms that another prime minister made in 1991 when the Indian economy was in such bad shape that our gold reserves were nearly mortgaged. It is also time to put on a tight leash ministers and sycophants who insult people like Jeff Bezos when they come to India with the promise of new investment. They do this in the hope that this will make the Prime Minister notice their loyalty, so he has to signal that he is not pleased with this kind of talk and it will stop.
This pandemic has also held up a gigantic mirror in which we can see clearly the face of our dear Bharat Mata. She looks bad. What is wrong with our idea of ‘socialism’ that we have not been able to build affordable, rental housing in our cities? The migrant workers may not have fled to their rural homes if they had a decent roof over their heads. In a city like Mumbai the absence of affordable housing is so acute that half its citizens live in slums and it is in these slums that this virus has struck most mercilessly. What is the point of advising people to socially distance themselves from each other when a one-room tenement is the only available home?
What is the point in telling people who live in these shanties to wash their hands many times a day with soap when soap and water are a luxury? In this terrifying mirror we see reflected our public health services and they look so hopeless and unhygienic that it should shame us all. So, this pandemic has come as a reminder to Mr Modi that it is time to fulfil those promises of ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’ in the truest sense of those two powerful words.
The article appeared in print under the headline: ‘COVID-19 gives India a second chance’
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