The coronavirus pandemic must be dealt with on the healthcare front comprehensively.
In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, some kind of a lockdown was necessary.
But the agony and pointless deaths faced by migrant workers and their families on the roads of India are an unforgivable tragedy. I don’t use the word ‘unforgivable’ lightly. The blame is squarely ours, the society we have built.
It was shocking to hear that various state governments, encouraged by businesses, are considering suspending — or have already suspended — many of the labour laws that protect workers. This includes laws related to settling industrial disputes, occupational safety, health and working conditions, and those related to minimum wages, trade unions, contract workers and migrant labourers.
The migrant workers we find fending for themselves and their families have almost no social security and too little — not too much — worker protection. All my working life I have dealt with labour unions and labour laws.
It is not as though over these past 50 years I haven’t dealt with draconian laws and unreasonable trade unions. But over the past few decades, labour laws have changed such that they are hardly among industry’s top constraints.
At the same time, social security measures have not increased, thus worsening the precarity of the employed. Diluting these already lax laws will not boost economic activity.
It will only exacerbate the conditions of low wage-earners and the poor, and the way we do business and industry. Such measures tend to pit workers and businesses against each other. This is a false choice. The interests of workers and businesses are deeply aligned, particularly in times of unprecedented economic crisis such as the one facing us today.
The Covid-19 crisis is also devastating the rural agrarian sector, and equally — if not more — the informal economy of the self-employed and small businesses across rural and urban areas. These sectors support the livelihoods of many times more people than the formal sector.
The economic damage and ensuing humanitarian crisis are immense.
We must remember we are still in the early stages of tackling the pandemic. This also means that the ‘livelihoods vs lives’ binary is not only a false choice, but also a dysfunctional and unethical way of framing the issue.
The pandemic must be dealt with on the healthcare front comprehensively, while the people and the economy must be supported equally to ameliorate the immediate human suffering and to minimise long-term damage. Both GoI and state governments must play a central role in this.
In this context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement to provide support amounting to nearly 10% of GDP is welcome and necessary. This 10% needs to be well and truly in addition to already committed government expenditure and interventions. With such a financial outlay, the following critical actions, some already spelt out by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, could be taken:
*Immediate steps to help the rural sector: Expanding MGNREGA may be the most important move. Additional allocation of Rs 1 lakh crore should be made to this employment scheme, along with increasing the guaranteed number of days per household and increasing the daily wage. This will also help all who demand work. Ensuring timely payment of wages will be critical.
*A similar urban employment guarantee scheme must be designed and rolled out, along with the focus on urban MSMEs. Both these schemes can enable creation of productive assets, including infrastructure and agrarian, which will form the backbone of an economic revival.
*Sustained investment in public health will help against this and future pandemics, and help build up a desperately needed responsive national health system in our country. In this season, it may also need to support the operating expenses of the rural economy.
*Increase public investment in agriculture: To promote sustainable farming initiatives, a stronger procurement system for grains at remunerative prices, and expansion of local storage and value-addition for perishable crops are needed. Rural and small-town entrepreneurship should be fostered, and these economies made more dynamic through involving local democratic institutions such as panchayats.
In this regard, the FM’s announcement of 11 ‘booster shots’ for agriculture is welcome.
*Ensure food security: We must universalise and double PDS ration for 3-6 months, and distribute it free through doorstep delivery, along with cooking oil, pulses, salt, masala, sanitary pads and soap in advance to all. Emergency cash relief of Rs 7,000 a month should be provided for at least three months (without biometric authentication) to each poor household/or migrant worker.
Minimum wages for 25 days a month should be released to all poor urban residents for the period of the lockdown, and at least for two months following the end of the lockdown.
*Migrant labour: Full autonomy and freedom should be provided to stranded and migrant labourers in deciding their travel plans, while ensuring all measures for containment of the pandemic. No one should be forced to stay back, or return to their home states. Stranded migrant workers should be allowed to travel for free on buses and trains.
Many of the details in GoI’s economic package will help to get liquidity back. However, that may not be enough. A 1-2-year detailed implementation plan must be developed quickly, by domain experts, fully involving state governments and civil society.
The size and nature of measures need to be truly ambitious for the economy, and its people, to recover.