From here, where?

From here, where?

K.M. Chandrasekhar

K.M. Chandrasekhar

The new coronavirus has now established itself in the country. There are more than 25000 cases and the rate of growth in some States has been alarming. The belief expressed by some experts is that the incidence of the disease is probably more than the figures indicate. More and more cases are coming to light every day of infected persons showing no symptoms, yet fully capable of infecting others. There have been cases of delayed onset of the flu. The nature of the disease is yet not fully known. It seems to affect different people in different ways. The mortality rate, which was initially estimated at not more than 2% has exceeded 3% in India. The rapid growth of infection in hotter regions of the country, in Maharashtra, in Gujarat, in Tamil Nadu, seems to show that the ambient temperature does not have too much effect on the life and growth of the virus. At the same time, experts are divided in their opinion on whether the onset of summer will slow it down, render it less and less destructive. There is a similar difference of opinion on whether it is better to build herd immunity by facing it upfront, protecting only the decidedly vulnerable, or denying it the space to grow by shutting down human interaction. All that is certain is that the virus has very high transmissibility and that it is far more virulent than any virus we have seen in recent times.

What is certain is that the world was caught with its pants down. It had no idea what devastation the virus could cause. It was unprepared, with no testing kits, not enough ventilators, woefully inadequate hospital facilities . The largest number of deaths took place in the US,UK, Italy, Spain, which showed that even advanced countries were woefully unprepared. Covid 19 need not necessarily end with this phase. The general belief is that the disease will strike the world in repeated waves. Herd immunity may happen in some braver parts of the world which took the invasion head on. Some vaccines and medication may be developed.Yet the past few years have shown that more and more new viruses have been evolving and mutating in different regions, whether as HIV-AIDS or Ebola or SARS or MERS, even as avian flu, which struck Hong Kong in 1997.

India will have problems in containing the virus once the lockdown is lifted.India will have even greater problems of stark poverty as a consequence of the virus combined with the unaddressed residual problems of the economic slowdown, accentuated immeasurably by the virus, the lockdown, the collapse of industry and the sharp fall in demand. Rajiv Bajaj, speaking to India Today, accused the government of deepening the country’s economic crisis and perpetuating the misery of its citizens by endangering their livelihood. “The lockdown is a solution that is looking for a problem,” he said . “The average age of the country is 28 and there is no social security...lockdown is not an answer to the economic and commercial crisis.”

Poverty already prevails in the country. The GDP figures may have grown, but the pathetic fact is that poverty remains and continues to affect millions. The short reprieve given by the lockdown could well lead to very dark days ahead for the impoverished people of India. “The lockdown in India has impacted the livelihoods of a large proportion of the country's nearly 40 million internal migrants”, said the World Bank, in a report released on Wednesday. “Around 50,000-60,000 moved from urban centers to rural areas of origin in the span of a few days," 40 million constitutes one and a half times the population of Australia. They are dispersed all over the country and they are uncertain whether work awaits them in the future. Many who are confined to relief camps complain of bad and insufficient food.

The situation can be no better for the millions who live in hovels and tenements.Dharavi in Mumbai alone houses a million people and they have 225 public toilets between them. “No one is allowed to go in or out," said city official Kiran Dighavkar to AFP, adding that "everything, including grocery shops, is shut. Police are using drones to make sure people obey the rules," he said. Crowded ten to fifteen in cramped space with no work, no food, no movement , poor sanitation, living from day to day without hope or expectation, anger grows and will grow even further as summer approaches and intensifies.A time could come when bottled up anger could spill out into the streets.

The effect on the labour force is likewise catastrophic.The International Labour Organisation (ILO) in its report titled 'ILO Monitor 2nd edition: COVID-19 and the World of Work', describes the pandemic as "the worst global crisis since World War II". Specifically on India, the ILO goes on to say, ”In India, with a share of almost 90% of people working in the informal economy, about 400 million workers in the informal economy are at risk of falling deeper into poverty during the crisis. Current lockdown measures in India, which are at the high end of the University of Oxford's COVID-19 Government Response Stringency Index, have impacted these workers significantly, forcing many of them to return to rural areas.” Oxfam estimates that the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide could increase by 434 million to 1.2 billion.

In agriculture, the problem is manifold, involving harvesting, purchasing, movement and sales to consumers while ensuring that the most vulnerable get their due share of food. Harvesting of agricultural produce, prices and the level of agricultural wages could be seriously affected by the unseasonal restrictions on the movement of migrant labour. Besides, there would be supply chain problems galore. In the words of Dr. Arabinda Kumar Padhee of ICRISAT, “Making the food grains, fruits and vegetables and other essential items available to consumers, both in rural and urban areas, is the most critical challenge for Government machinery during the lockdown period. Smooth functioning of the supply chain, with adequate safety measures for the people involved, is of paramount importance. Transportation of public distribution system (PDS) items to last mile delivery agents, by both rail and road, has to be ensured by respective Government agencies. Distribution of the commodities to vulnerable populations, while maintaining prescribed guidelines and protocol, particularly of social distancing, must be effectively monitored.”

The inability of economic policy makers , manifested over the last couple of years, either to identify the real issues or to formulate a realistic and timely response, makes me very apprehensive of what lies ahead of us. The stubborn adherence to business-as-usual economics in times of crisis and the incapacity to adapt to changing situations is a worrying factor. If demand fails to pick up, if incomes fall and unemployment rises, we could get into a vicious cycle of poverty from which it will be increasingly difficult to bale out the economy. The delay in announcing a sharp, self liquidating stimulus and financing the much greater requirements of State Governments will have a far greater impact on the poor rather than the well-off.

The time has come for us to rethink our entire economic philosophy. Our policy has been guided over the years by parameters like growth rate of GDP, extent of foreign investment, fiscal deficit ratios, inflation, indices used by institutions like the World Bank, the World Economic Forum and the IMF. The problem in India is one of poverty and the success or failure of our policies should be evaluated solely by what impact our policies make on poverty. Poverty not only erodes the fabric of society, it also perpetuates itself by creating mindsets that accept poverty as a given from which the poor cannot escape and in which horizons are limited and ambitions low. As the World Bank Development Report of 2015 says,”Poverty is not simply a shortfall of money. The constant day to day hard choices associated with poverty in effect ‘tax’ an individual’s psychological and social resources...and can lead to economic decisions that perpetuate poverty”.

Evaluating growth parameters on the basis of goalposts accepted in the West will not solve the problem of poverty. It will not ensure a basic living standard for all our citizens. Our growth should be judged by our success in ensuring basic minimum living conditions, by our ability to create jobs, by the extent to which our social infrastructure has developed, growth in literacy and basic education, not by how much the GDP has grown or by how much the rich have grown richer and how much money foreign investors have put into the country. This was recognised by Gandhiji many decades ago when he said, “According

to me, the economic constitution of India and, for that matter of the world, should be such that no one under it should suffer from it for want of food and clothing. In other words, everybody should be able to get sufficient work to enable him to make the two ends meet.” Or, as Dalai Lama said recently, “Furthermore, we all have the same right to pursue happiness and avoid suffering. When we recognize that all beings are equal in this respect, we automatically feel empathy and closeness towards others. And, out of this comes a genuine sense of universal responsibility: the wish to actively help others overcome their problems," said the Dalai Lama, adding, "Our mother earth is teaching us a lesson in universal responsibility."

Can we think and act differently in the post-Covid world? Can we design our policies on the basis of growth of all rather than the skewed growth we now see? Can we judge our success or failure on the basis of indices that take into account the problem of poverty and basic living standards for all?