With India already grappling with an economic slowdown and job losses, COVID-19 has struck at the most inopportune time. And the inept handling by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government has only worsened the situation. As always, the down-trodden sections of the society have had to bear the brunt of it. Doctors, nurses, health workers, and police personnel too have had to suffer a lot since the country was not prepared for this tragedy.
Though one may take heart from the fact that the total number of casualties and infected person in India are less compared to rest of the world, the damages and miseries caused by the pandemic could have been much less had the government swung into action in time. The warning signals were there in February itself. A note of caution from Rahul Gandhi of the Congress on February 12 to this effect was dismissed by the government as an attempt to create unnecessary panic.
When the government got out of its slumber and imposed a country-wide lockout, it did not bother about migrant workers and daily wagers. The Centre declared the lockdown and imposed other harsh measures without consulting the state governments. The latter had little elbow room to prepare for the lockdown. The chaos and confusion was predictable. Poor migrant labourers had nowhere to go, nothing to eat and none to look to for any help. The lockdown reminds one of this government’s monumental failures such as demonetisation and flawed GST implementation.
While the first corona case in India was reported as early as on January 30, India was busy preparing for the February 24 Namaste Trump show in Ahmedabad. Though the first corona death happened on March 9, the BJP was busy in toppling the government in Madhya Pradesh. It sent its party MLAs to Bengaluru the same day. As the sequence unfolded, the state assembly was adjourned on March 17 due to the pandemic. But it did not deter the ruling party at the Centre from pulling down the Congress-led government in Bhopal on March 20. The “janata curfew” was also declared on March 22. The very next day, BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan was sworn in as chief minister.
But Madhya Pradesh is now paying a heavy price for this act. It has already seen more cases and deaths, especially in Indore. MP now has the dubious distinction of being fourth state behind Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi in terms of the death toll and overall cases. Meanwhile, once the deed was done, Parliament was adjourned and lockdown enforced and all movement stopped.
It did not end here. Some BJP leaders and certain sections of the media tried to give a communal colour to a sudden spike in corona cases following the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi. Certain questions were raised in this regard about the permission given, whether the government was not unaware of the jamaat since it happened close to a police station and so on.
What followed later recalled the situation in India immediately after Partition, with people running helter-skelter with no clear directions from either the central or state governments. Some people managed to travel home, peddling their way to their far-off villages or walking tens and hundreds of kilometres, braving the police lathis and the inclement weather. Some 20-30 people, including children and women, are reported to have died during the journey. While initially, most of the state governments refused to arrange transport for migrants, many of them subsequently agreed to bring back students, and migrants at a later stage. Shocking as it may sound that some states, including Bihar, did not show even this much courtesy.
The healthcare personnel, from doctors to ward boys, were put to great hardships in the absence of PPEs or testing kits initially. By the time these arrived from China and some other places, many of the corona warriors had already lost their lives. Still, a sizeable number of these kits were found to be defective. To cap it all, many of these warriors were ill-treated while performing their duty by relatives of affected people in the absence of police protection, and, in some cases, despite their presence. Finally, the government came up with a legal shield for the corona warriors. Through an ordinance, it amended the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and made acts of violence against healthcare personnel non-bailable offence with seven years in jail and Rs 5 lakh as fine.
While we are fortunate to have less number of casualties and cases, we need to do more tracing, tracking and testing to know the actual situation. While it is good to boost the morale of health personnel by thumping plates or lighting candles, these are at best symbolic gestures. It can’t make up for the lack of PPEs, testing kits or basic facilities that our healthcare system badly needs.
The impact of lockdown has already taken a heavy toll of the economy. According to one estimate, some 11 crore workers employed in MSMEs have lost their livelihood after the corona pandemic. There is already a spike in demand for jobs under MGNREGA. MSMEs make up a third of country’s GDP. Experts also say that loss of jobs and wages in Gulf countries will lead to a drop in remittances to India. In fact, the World Bank says remittances may decline by 23 per cent in 2020 to $64 billion, the sharpest fall in recent history.
The Confederation of Indian Industries warns that the GDP may shrink by 0.9 per cent in FY-21. States have spent Rs 10,000 crore in fighting the coronavirus and are short of funds. The ban on liquor sale and decline in the sale of fuel, the two major revenue heads for states, have devastated their finances. While industry bodies are demanding a stimulus package ranging between Rs 14-16 lakh crore, the relief package offered so far by the government is just Rs 1.7 lakh crore. On top of all this, the government has put on hold dearness allowance revision for employees and pensioners for 18 months. This would help the government save Rs 1.21 lakh crore.
It is ironical that this government was talking about a $5-trillion economy recently. Within a month’s time, it has reached the stage where it has to deny DA to government employees. It is also strange that on the one hand it is taking funds under PM Cares’ for fighting COVID-19 and on the other, it refuses to scrap an avoidable Central Vista project worth Rs 20,000 crore for relocating and renovating Parliament and other central government premises in New Delhi. The fact that PM Cares’ Fund was established when the PM National Relief Fund was already in existence and the donations could have been taken in the old account raises questions.
While considerable damage has already been done to the economy, the government should take all stakeholders into confidence before lifting the lockdown. The government needs to have a plan in place for industries to reopen and migrant labour to return. Farmers, workers in small shops, small industries and daily wagers need to be compensated as they have no money to survive.
All these tragic developments could have been avoided had the government of India prepared itself right from December 2019, when China reported deaths due to COVID-19.
(The writer is a former Union minister)
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