People and the Opposition have been with the Govt so far. The latter now needs to heed their views on saving the economy
So far, one cannot fault the common citizen or even the Opposition leaders. For they have risen to the occasion and stayed with the Central Government in battling the Coronavirus, be it by observing lockdowns or working out medical protocols. But that does not mean total subservience to “one voice”, the non-questioning of wrong moves or even dismissal of alternative suggestions to get the nation back on track. The viral curve has not flattened despite the lockdown but the economy has surely flatlined and we need cooperative federalism to manage this bigger crisis than resort to ego wars or cheap politics. Fortunately, India has a large resource pool of policy experts and even mature politicians of long standing who can help. So it would make infinite common sense to tap into them. Sadly, the Narendra Modi Government, for all its muscular push on shutting down the nation, had not foreseen the reverse migration of labour or planned a bailout package for an economy that’s grunting, groaning and gasping for breath. Kickstarting agriculture is not the only solution. As companies go under, people lose jobs and State Governments stare at bankruptcies with dipping revenues, some as high as 90 per cent, India would lose more lives to the great economic chaos than the virus. In fact, saving the economy is now the twin pillar of the battle as global studies predict that the pandemic is not going away anywhere soon. And now that allied crises are compounding the disease burden, the Government doesn’t seem to have concrete plans to address either migration or an economic stimulus. Worse, the political ceasefire is over and the blame games have begun. What else explains the distasteful remark by the ruling BJP on Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s offer to pay train fare of migrants from party coffers as an attempt to create Italy everywhere? What lies behind the relentless nitpicking of Opposition-ruled States like Bengal and not self-introspecting on self-ruled States like Gujarat? What explains the decision to make destitute and stranded migrants pay for their return journey on trains when they have had no daily wages over the last month and a half? What explains the rationale of passing the burden to States, who themselves are cash-strapped? What about the accountability of expense patterns from the PM Cares fund, which is seeing contributions pouring in from all sections of society? Of course, there are disturbing reports of a segregatory attitude towards different communities while disbursing COVID-19 relief packages, too. The Centre would do well to assuage these anxieties than smell the familiar Opposition conspiracy. Truth be told, each Chief Minister worth his/her salt, is stepping up to protect his/her respective State. Given the undiagnosed trajectory of the disease or the number of fatalities we might end up with, there’s no way to guarantee that politicking over survival would stand the test of human memory in the next round of polls. That would be too foolish indeed. Wisdom demands that regulated and realistic exit protocols be worked out in a consultative format and not as a bureaucratic imposition.
There was a big question mark on the success of the lockdown given the Indian penchant for indiscipline but people voluntarily complied and willed themselves to stay safe. Similarly, the Opposition Chief Ministers have all worked in tandem with the Centre. But in the end, the lockdown can only buy one time, delay the onslaught of the virus so that anticipatory preparations can be made, not only in managing healthcare but also keeping the economy chugging. As testing gets aggressive, it is clear that the virus has seeped through the trellis of India’s dense population and lockdown or no lockdown, the graph is vertical now. Also, with an extended lockdown testing patience and one’s earning ability, violations are difficult to police. There is no point pondering what could have been done. But the focus should be on what can be done now. Beginning with migrants. If Air India could be used to bring back stranded Indians free from around the world, then the same courtesy can be extended to displaced migrants on trains. They, in the end, do not deserve to be treated like the Stateless. The Railways have already contributed Rs 150 crore to the PM fund and a part of that could be used to cover the expenses. Let us not forget that without labourers at their bases, no business can start operation no matter which zone it is in. So till we facilitate easy movement by train, either to their villages or to their work hubs, no stimulus package can be utilised on the ground. Let’s not forget that labourers are also revolting as the violence in Surat revealed. Shunned by India’s cities, which they built and serviced with their toil and sweat, they were turfed out overnight, forced to stay in under-serviced camps and looked at with suspicion as carriers of a disease they certainly didn’t import. Couldn’t some bit of non-essential railway infrastructure be slowed down or stalled temporarily to take care of India’s unorganised workforce, believed to be around 10 crore, to keep the economy moving? Some relief could be allocated from the National Disaster Management fund, too. The third promised stimulus is still coming. The non-action now won’t be forgotten but the rhetoric certainly will be.