Economic and social activities will come out from slumber in the coming weeks
Covid-19 has shaken the world — India is devastated as other countries. On May 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation. He declared that would usher into the fourth phase of the lockdown with new rules effective from May 18. We may expect significant relaxations in the rules, as the PM announced “we have to save lives and move forward at the same time”. The new rules will be in place before this piece is published. The PM also announced an economic package of Rs 20 trillion (10 per cent of GDP).
No one knows when the crisis will be over. The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a warning that it is impossible to predict when the pandemic may be controlled. It says the virus may never go away. The vaccine is not at sight. In this situation, there is no option but to start economic and other activities to save the economy, which is at the brink of a great depression, and to provide livelihoods to those who belong to economically and socially marginalised classes and also to the middle class. If the government fails to reboot the economy fast, more people may die in hunger than the number of deaths due to Covid-19 and malnutrition will turn the so-called demographic advantage into a burden. The lockdown cannot continue forever. Therefore, the government’s decision to provide major relaxations in the lockdown rules will benefit the economy and society.
The theme of the PM’s speech was “self-reliant India (Atmanirbhar Bharat)”. He gave a clarion call to use Indian products and make domestic brands popular globally. This signals the shift in economic policy. The announcement has created suspicion that India is poised to adopt a protectionist policy, which will be detrimental to the interest of consumers who will be deprived of the benefits of competition. It might create employment in India but take away employment opportunities available to Indians outside, if other countries retaliate. Nirmala Sitharaman, the finance minister, tried to allay the suspicion. She clarified it was not about isolating India globally, but building an integrated India. We have to wait and watch policy initiatives of the government.
Economic and social activities will come out from slumber in the coming weeks. A new normal will emerge gradually. Experts and consultants are busy predicting the new normal. Companies are busy figuring out the business model that fits the new normal. They are looking for new opportunities thrown up by the pandemic crisis. It is expected that business leaders will search for new opportunities, manage risks, innovate sustainable business models, and lobby with the government for formulating favourable policies taking advantage when the economy or society is facing a crisis. There is no surprise. What surprises is that although they vow to act responsibly but show no concern for those who support them in making money. The Covid-19 crisis has made us see the plight of migrant workers who are the backbone of industrial production. They are non-existent on the government radar and the corporate sector disowns them when they are not required. There is no social security for them.
Our lack of empathy and compassion for marginalised society gets reflected when educationists boast on how quickly universities, colleges and schools have adopted technology for imparting education, knowing well that proper internet bandwidth is not available in villages, many families in cities cannot afford to subscribe high-speed internet, and students in villages and some students in cities do not have smartphones and laptops. A survey in West Bengal shows that only 15 per cent of the school students have benefited from online teaching. Perhaps there is no alternative to on-line teaching, but the sad part is that most of those who provide leadership do not address the issue of the students from marginalised society. Similarly, industrialists cheer when some states propose taking away labour rights by relaxing or suspending labour laws, ignoring the international labour standards, which require that amendments to labour laws should emanate from tripartite consultation involving the government, workers’ and employer organisations.
I am afraid that the government’s and businesses’ apathy towards the members of economically and socially marginalised society will widen the gap between the haves and have-nots in the post-Covid-19 situation. The future seems to be gloomy for the have-nots. We all should worry about it.
The writer is former professor of IIM Calcutta and ex-director of IMT Ghaziabad