The continuation of the lockdown for another two weeks with minor relaxation may well be understandable given that the government is aware of the consequences of the pandemic spreading in a country which has poor health infrastructure, other than social distancing being a major challenge as a large section of city population lives in slums, squatter settlements, railway tracks etc. However, the looming economic crisis is extremely critical with the government not in a position to provide food to the hungry millions despite the country being self-sufficient in food stocks.
A recent paper of International Commission of Jurists has alleged the Indian government has fallen short of its ‘obligation’ to ensure that citizens had access to adequate food and that during the Covid-19 crisis there has been discrimination and violence against Muslims and dalits. Referring to the Global Hunger Report 2019, it found that 400 million informal sector workers were “at risk of falling deeper into poverty during the Covid-19 crisis amidst hunger pangs making deep forays into the Indian society”.
Detailing how Muslim vegetable and fruit vendors have reportedly been prevented access to neighbourhoods in Delhi and Rajasthan and beaten up, while Gujjar milkmen in Jammu, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab have faced boycott as well as physical violence, the paper points out to the governments’ failure to enforce the criminal law, including Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989. These, it said seek to prevent acts of violence and discrimination and that the lack of protection of food vendors is incompatible with India’s obligation to protect the right to food. The paper also rightly highlighted the obvious that millions of citizens are still living in deprived conditions in urban and rural areas and lack access to adequate food, health and sanitation facilities, shelter etc.
As is a familiar sight, migrant labourers and the poor are lining up twice a day for food to keep hunger at bay across States. People without work and money fear it is not the pandemic but hunger which shall kill them. Already 135 million people had been facing acute food shortage and now with the lockdown, 130 million more shall go hungry in 2020, cautioned Arif Hussain, Chief Economist, World Food Programme, a UN agency. Worse, an estimated 265 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the year end. It is a fact that from Honduras to South Africa to India protests and looting has broken out amid frustrations about hunger. In India, it is estimated that 368 million children have lost out on their midday meals and snacks in schools.
Analysts observed that though the hunger crisis is global and caused by a multitude of factors linked to the pandemic, in India the lingering economic slowdown since August last year has resulted in interruption of the economic order and loss in income for countless millions due to other factors too such as climate change, violence, population dislocation and human disasters.
It is anybody’s guess when the 300-350 million Indians, who live below the poverty line, will be able to regain a semblance of dignity. The fractures and fissures in our civil society are widening and beginning to threaten the stability of our social existence. Also severe economic crisis has surfaced due to the country’s very poor health infrastructure, which has never received the priority it deserved. Wrong planning such as starting of bullet trains, modernisation of airports, random foreign travel of ministers and officials and Rs 20,000 crore plan of a Central Vista – is not going to help development of health infrastructure or improve lives.
Some experts believe the new Covid ‘Brahmanism’ uses age old customs such as social distancing with the low castes and poorer sections like dalits, adivasis etc. There is the standard middle class anxiety about contagion caused by the crowded lives of the poor, aggravated by the prejudice that Muslims are a dangerous and alien subset of the poor who need to be more rigorously quarantined. Coronavirus perhaps is a challenge that caste society was built to meet.
Faced with an absurd definition of poverty, the government’s inaction is well manifest. Though high levels of GDP were recorded in the past few years, it had virtually no effect on the struggling masses. Way back in September 2011, Justice Dalveer Bhandari had stated “not a single person should die out of starvation” and ordered distribution of additional foodgrains in 150 poorest districts. Poverty and hunger have even drawn judiciary’s attention but the situation at the ground level sadly hasn’t changed. The questions to be asked are: would politicians take turns to live for a few days in the households of the poor and try to understand the hunger, anger and anguish which is stripping the common man of the right to live with dignity? Have they tried to understand the root cause behind the suicide of around 2 lakh farmers who left behind tales of debt, poverty and sorrow?
Regarding the condition of migrant workers, it cannot be denied they are struggling to survive the six-week lockdown in States, with governments not playing an active role in providing relief to an estimated 100 million workers. The situation may deteriorate further as lockdown may be extended further, aggravating the financial crisis. Worse, the country has no central registry of migrant workers despite passing legislation 40 years ago to establish such a database.
Additionally, 11 crore people engaged in around 6.5 crore MSMEs have not worked for a single day in April, while 8-9 days work was lost in March and some days will also be lost in May. Congress’ former Finance Minister Chidambaram rightly suggested the party’s proposal for Rs 1 lakh crore wage protection assistance to help MSMEs pay wages for April and Rs 1 lakh crore Guarantee Fund for these entrepreneurs to help them borrow. He also urged the government to announce a pay cheque protection programme, similar to the one announced in the US.
With the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook stating that “first time since the Great Depression, both advanced and emerging market and developing economies are in recession,” the government needs to come out with a concrete plan without further delay. Besides, former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan has recently estimated that India will need to spend Rs 65,000 crore, which is not much where GDP is Rs 200 crore, to help with food and cash for the poor reeling under the crisis.
Clearly, the government cannot dilly-dally any further and must focus on the poor and economically weaker sections and not just think of making things easy for business houses. India’s pathetic rescue package of just one per cent – compared to Japan’s 20% of GDP and that of US 10+6% of GDP – cannot tackle the problem of a country with a huge population and high density. According to economists, even Nobel Laureate Prof. Abhijit Banerjee, the RBI must print additional sums of money without bothering for the fiscal deficit and make available at least 3-4% of GDP for economic recovery. The government will do well to remember the adage: a stitch in time saves nine.