THE people were looking forward to the prime minister’s address to the nation on the last day of the three-week countrywide lockdown. These three weeks have thrown up many experiences that need to be addressed urgently in order, both, to strengthen our fight against the Covid 19 pandemic and to protect the lives and survival of crores of our fellow citizens. On none of these issues of vital importance did the prime minister have anything substantial to say. This address by the prime minister, hence, has not provided the needed confidence to the people that the central government is sincere in addressing the most important concerns.
PM announced the extension of the lockdown till May 3, ie, another 19 days. He said some guidelines would be issued on April 15. He also said that on April 20, the government will conduct a review of identifying the hotspots, the areas where the pandemic is spreading. He spoke of some relaxation in other areas. No one has any idea of what these relaxations are: whether they will permit the resumption of some economic activity and, hence, some livelihood opportunities for the people?
STRENGTHEN THE FIGHT AGAINST COVID
On the two important measures that are required to strengthen this fight, the prime minister was virtually silent. These are the provision of adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for our doctors and health workers and large-scale testing amongst the people.
On the contrary, the prime minister claimed credit for announcing an early lockdown because of which he claims that we have been able to contain the spread of the pandemic relatively. The lockdown was declared in India on March 24 in an abrupt manner with just four hours of notice that left both the administration, specially state governments, and the people unprepared.
First case in India was reported on January 30. No substantive measures were taken despite this for seven long weeks until the declaration of the lockdown. Normal activities continued with the parliament in session, the toppling of an elected government in Madhya Pradesh, the swearing-in of a BJP state government on the eve of the prime minister’s announcement of the Janata Curfew on March 22, etc. Though formal restrictions against large gatherings were in place, none of these actions violating these guidelines was stopped.
As far as the lockdown is concerned, many countries in the world moved with greater urgency – China locked down Wuhan on January 23, whole of Italy locked down on March 10, USA declared a national emergency on March 13, Spain on March 14, France on March 17 and UK on March 23. Hence, the PM’s assertion that India declared an early lockdown is patently incorrect.
REFUSAL TO LEARN FROM KERALA
The Left Democratic Front government in Kerala, having had the experience of successfully tackling, containing and eliminating the Nipah pandemic earlier (that earned it plaudits from the WHO and international community), moved with alacrity. Given the reports from other countries, Kerala was prepared even before the first case had been detected in the state on January 30. This was because Kerala has a large number of people working and studying abroad, including in China. Their returning home, potentially carried the dangers of the spread of Covid pandemic. Control rooms were set-up, both at the state level and at the district levels, to monitor the movement of the pandemic. The subsequent efforts and steps undertaken by the LDF government have been reported in these columns and, hence, need no repetition. The sum total of these measures is that, today Kerala is the only state in India that has been able to near flatten the curve of the spread of the pandemic.
PM claimed that India started checking all travellers from abroad very early. Then, it is strange that Italian tourists with infection entered in February along with many others, who later tested positive. Mercifully, most of the Italians were cured. A celebrity singer returned from abroad cleared at the airport, but tested positive. Those, including BJP bigwigs, who attended a party with her had to be quarantined. There are many more instances like this.
PM claimed that adequate testing is being undertaken in India. Testing is of crucial importance to identify the clusters where the pandemic is spreading in order to isolate and insulate them to contain the community spread. Inadequate testing does not provide us such information. It is dangerous, both, for the inability to contain the spread and to identify the critical areas.
Is India testing enough as the PM claimed? We have pointed out earlier that India ranks among the countries that is testing the least in the world. Compared to South Korea, India was testing at a level which is 241 times lower. Till April 9, India’s record of testing was 0.092 per thousand, while Germany was 15.96, Italy 14.43, Australia 12.99, Denmark 10.73, Canada 9.99 and so on. Unless our testing rate increases substantially, our strength to combat the pandemic will not grow.
As we go to press, as per official data, 11,479 have tested positive and 390 died due to the pandemic and over 200 have died for reasons other than Covid – due to hunger, exhaustion and lack of shelter. This sort of a proportion of deaths is unacceptable for India. In fact, any unnatural death, cannot be acceptable. We must ensure that there are no starvation deaths that occur in our country. It is, therefore, imperative that the government must immediately implement a Rs 7,500 ex-gratia cash transfer to all non-income tax paying families and resort to universal distribution of free foodgrains to all needy people. The central government must enhance its spending substantially.
INCREASE FINANCIAL ALLOCATIONS TO THE STATES
The Rs 1.7 lakh crore financial package announced is meagre, less than 0.8 per cent of our GDP. Malaysia has announced a fiscal stimulus package of 16 per cent of its GDP, USA more than 9 per cent, Germany more than 8 per cent, Italy more than 5 per cent, and so on. India, in comparison, has been very miserly, bordering on being criminal, in its efforts to protect human life. India’s stimulus package must be increased to 5 per cent or more of the GDP. The states are on the front lines in battling this pandemic. Instead of strengthening their efforts, they are even being denied their legitimate financial dues by the centre. This cannot be allowed. The greater the amount of finances in the hands of the state governments, that more effective would be India’s fight against the pandemic. Thousands of crores of rupees that are being collected by the prime minister in a fund, that bears his name, must be transferred to the states. The states must be allowed to borrow beyond the current ceiling imposed by the centre to meet this health emergency.
The prime minister had appealed on the last occasion, March 24, that no worker should be retrenched. He repeated this appeal to the employers yet another time now. Mere appeals cannot work and have not worked. Already thousands of regular workers have been retrenched. All daily workers, casual, and temporary have already lost their jobs. There is a large-scale wage cut that has come into force during this lockdown. Many countries in the world, some to the tune of 80 per cent of the wage bill, have announced packages to support the employers to maintain the jobs and wages. The Indian government has done nothing like this so far. This must be done forthwith, otherwise people’s misery will compound.
This is the harvesting season. The government must ensure compulsory procurement on the declared C2+50 per cent support price. The reports of no work under MGNREGA are disturbing. All those registered must be paid their wages irrespective of work.
The prime minister has said that the situation will be reviewed on April 20 and on that basis, some relaxation in the lockdown may be announced. At that time, special arrangements must be made by the central government for the return of the migrant workers, who are living without adequate food or proper shelter in various parts of the country, back to their homes. Except in states like Kerala, where they are being well looked after by the state government with people’s support, in all other states, they are existing in agonising conditions. India had, rightly, evacuated many stranded Indians from foreign countries. Surely, we can organise special trains and buses for our own brethren in India. This is essential to stem the dangers of large scale community transmission.
It may be too much to expect the guidelines the prime minister has promised to announce soon after his address will deal with these issues we have raised. But these are of vital importance both for the survival and livelihood of our people and for strengthening our struggle against the pandemic.
Finally, it needs to be underlined that only a united India and united people can eventually succeed in this struggle. All efforts to socially or communally polarise our people in the midst of this serious battle will only weaken and undermine our struggle. It is, indeed, most unfortunate and ominous that the prime minister, in his address to the nation, did not even mention, forget denouncing or decrying such trends of growing reports of social boycotts, communal isolation and targeting of communities based on religion. The complete unity amongst our people is our brahmastra in this battle against Covid 19.
The prime minister has spelt out a seven-point programme for us to implement, which he called the saptapadi. It’s high time that the government adopts a charter for itself to implement, on the basis of the issues that we have raised above.
In fact, the central government must adopt, at the least, this navapadi, for itself to implement on a war footing:
1. Procure and provide required PPEs
2. Rapidly increase testing
3. Cash transfer of Rs 7,500 immediately to all non income-tax paying people.
4. Distribution of free food grains to all needy
5. Raise financial stimulus package from the current 0.8 per cent to at least 5 per cent of GDP.
6. Support state governments with liberal funding
7. Procure harvested crops at the declared C2+50 per cent support price and pay wages to all registered under MGNREGA, irrespective of work
8. Financially assist employers to protect workers from job losses and wage cuts
9. Arrange for the return of migrant workers to their homes