Convert Schemes into Workable and Measurable Action

BY Dr Prakash Louis

As the coronavirus crisis deepens and its impact unfolds on over 1,340 million population of India, it is pertinent to take the ground reality as given and plan any response. At this juncture every common and conscious citizens of this country are grappling with the various impact and fall out of this crisis. It is a fact that not only India but the global society did not face such a crisis. Above all, no one was prepared for such a crisis. What is now dawning on most of the human beings, families, communities and country is that this crisis may alter tenets of human person, collectivity, country and the entire creation. In this crisis bound time, it is not government based on party lines or ideologies or biases or whims and fancies or even pious wishes but governance which is the need of the hour. Governance and good governance are responsive to the needs and aspirations of the citizens. It responds to the needs of all the citizens irrespective of caste, class, gender, religion, region, language and political affiliation and life orientations.

It is extremely heartening to see that as the coronavirus crisis deepened, the Government of India communicated its resolve to respond to this virus. It declared that it will appoint a task force to enable the government to be prepared and to respond. It also organized a day of Janta Curfew, that is, ‘blockade declared by the people’, refraining themselves from movements and adhering to ‘social distancing’. It went a step ahead and imposed 21 days of ‘total lockdown’ from 24th March to 14th April, 2020.

The Relief Package of the Government of India

India Today reported on 26th March, 2020, that the Finance Minister of India, Nirmala Sitharaman announced a relief package worth Rs 1.70 lakh crore to help the nation’s poor tackle the financial difficulties arising from Covid-19 outbreak. Sitharaman said the economic relief package will focus India Today reported on 26th March, 2020, that the Finance Minister of India, Nirmala Sitharaman announced a relief package worth Rs 1.70 lakh crore to help the nation’s poor tackle the financial difficulties arising from Covid-19 outbreak. Sitharaman said the economic relief package will focus primarily on migrant labourers and daily wage labourers. The package is supposed to include a mix of food security and direct cash transfer benefits which shield poor families during the lockdown. Under the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Ann Yojna at least 800 million poor people are to be covered. These people will also receive 5 kilos of rice/wheat, 1 kilo of pulse per household.

Taking into account the health workers’ needs, she also announced that there will be Rs 50 lakh insurance cover for each healthcare worker for three months. It was announced that support staff, ward-boys, nurses, paramedics, technicians, doctors and specialists and other health would be covered by a special insurance scheme. Any health professional who while treating Covid-19 patients meets with some accident, then he/she would be compensated with an amount of Rs 50 lakh under the scheme.

The Finance Minister announced direct cash transfers for a large number of affected people including senior citizens, widows, farmers and daily wage labourers. 86.9 million farmers to be immediately benefited through direct cash transfers under Kisan Samman Nidhi. Instalment of Rs 2,000 in the first week of April will be transferred. Wages under MNREGA will also be increased by Rs 2000 per worker on an average as additional income to help daily wage labourers.

She also announced that 200 million Jan Dhan women account holders will be covered under the relief package and a compensation of Rs 500 per month for the next three months. Sitharaman further announced that BPL families will get free cylinders for three months under the Ujjawala scheme as well. Meanwhile, collateral-free loans have been doubled to Rs 20 Lakh for women self-help groups under the Deen Dayal National Livelihood Mission. It will help 70 million women. The government has also decided to bear the cost of EPF contribution of both employer and employee (24 per cent) for the next three months. This is only for those establishments which have up to 100 employees and 90 per cent of them earn less than Rs 15,000. This is like to benefit around 48 million employees. In addition to these, the central government has passed orders to states to use funds worth Rs 31,000 crore to provide relief to building and construction workers.

In the past, the government had extended the income tax filing for the financial year 2018-19 to June 30, 2020. The finance minister also extended the deadline for Aadhaar-Pan card linking to the same date. A total waiver of debit card usage charges which apply for transaction at a different bank’s ATM. The minimum balance criteria for bank accounts was also waived off for a period of three months. The government also has promised to announce more schemes gradually if there are more needs.

A Positive and Progressive Step

At the outset it should be reiterated that the coronavirus relief package announced by the government of India is a positive and progressive step in the right direction. It would if implemented as promised by the government would alleviate not only the sufferings of the citizens of the country but would also address the mental and personal depression that many are forced to undergo. All the conscious citizens of this country have whole heartedly welcomed this package and consider this announcement in the right direction to alleviate the sufferings of the most vulnerable of this country. It is time that all of us unite together to realise these schemes into workable and measurable action programs.

In addition to the efforts of the government, there are innumerable citizens who have been and are responding to the crisis even risking their time, leisure, income and even life. These are: the health workers like doctors, nurses, para-medics, pharmaceutical staff, ward boys and support staff in the health sector; police, administrative staff, district and state secretarial staff in the administrative machinery; shop keepers who provide the essential to people; bank employees; NGOs and volunteers who are trying to identify and respond to the needs of the most vulnerable; children and youth who have understood the ground reality and are trying to cope with it and are not creating any issue about lockdown; all the families trying to respond to the crisis to the best of their efforts and also trying to hold their families together; women who are bearing the brunt of things yet hoping, praying and working for the betterment of all the family members, etc. Some of the district administrations and state governments have done very well to respond to this crisis. Some of the district administration came out with guidelines following the Home Ministry guidelines issued on 23rd March, 2020. They very clearly articulated the precautionary measures to be taken, the program for procuring essential food items, and even fixing the rate of these items. They also went a step further and asked the citizens to inform the administration if someone hoards food items or makes the price exorbitant. Some of them opened schools to provide space and facilities for the migrant labourers. Some are already preparing for isolation wards so that in eventuality, these would be pressed into service. These efforts need to be appreciated and efforts should be made to replicate them in other states and districts.

Need of the Hour is Governance and not Government

But to achieve this there has to be less of government and more of governance, less of pronouncements and more of programs of action, less of exclusive ideologies and more of inclusive operations, less of putting up a brave front than taking into account the ground realities, less of ego boosting and more of magnanimity to do service to Indians and humanity, less of arrogance and more of openness to learn from various individuals, communities, countries, contexts, etc., less of politicking and more of political will, and above all justifying ones actions than more of drawing the wisdom and contributions from all the Indians to tide over the situation and to stabilise the crisis. In a sense converting the crisis into opportunity to believe and to build one democratic, secular, socialist, republic India.

While everyone irrespective of caste, class, location, income, gender, occupation go through these after effects of the virus and the lockdown, it is the poor and the vulnerable who are subjected to untold misery and problems. It is common knowledge that those who have sufficient or at least some money and resources will be able to face this crisis at least for some time. But it is the downtrodden who are already facing the crisis without any recourse to support. In normal times, these used to earn wages at least few days in a week and survive. But now they are not just below the poverty line but below human living. Internationally, an income of less than `150 per day per head of purchasing power parity is defined as extreme poverty. Moving from the income calculation to expenditure basket calculation, it was estimated that the percentage of poor people in India was 37% or 435 million or 435 million out of 1,340 million population of India. This segment of the population during the normal times face unsurmountable problems to make both the ends meet. Now when due to social distancing and also total lockdown, they cannot offer themselves as cheap labour and no one would hire them too.

It is a well-known social fact that depressed migration has been going on in India for decades. Especially the poor and the marginalized especially from the Dalit, Tribal, Most Backward Castes and Muslims migrate in a big way from states like Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh to other parts of India to eke out a living in some of the most deplorable conditions. In the past, many of them used to go to Delhi, Punjab and Haryana. Now many of them go to southern part of India. Since they get daily labour, wages, wages on time, and at least minimum wages, they are migrating en-mass. They live in pathetic living conditions but save money to send home so that those at home can at least get something to eat and survive. It is this segment of the population which is badly affected by the lockdown. Not only Indians but also the world was crudely shocked and shaken by the plight of this people who were stranded, those who ventured were thrashed by the police, those who decided to move had to walk for days to reach their destination. In some cases, the borders were sealed and these people had to face severe hardships. Irrespective of announcements like 1,000 buses will be deployed to transport migrant labourers, their plight has not come to an end.

As stated above, some state and district administrations have done well in terms of responding to the crisis. But some have not put in place at least the necessary measures to respond. For example, some districts have permitted purchase of essential item only 3 days a week, that too from 6.00 am to 12.00 noon. Even in these places, the price charged is very high and there are no mechanisms to complain about these businessmen. Both hoarding and increasing prices of essential commodities are age-old practice in India. The Banias, Marwaris and the Sahukars always look for any opportunity to increase their wealth at the cost of the common citizens of India. It is these caste and category of people who are both vote for the present regime and fund them. Hence, it is not surprising that the present government has not done anything to address the price rise in this crisis.

The above table, speaks volumes about the commissions and omissions of the government. It ignored the entire issue of the coronavirus, the spread of it, the preparedness needed for that, the plans made by the government, screening of the potential carriers, setting up of hospitals to test and to treat, the availability of protective gears for the medical personnel, etc. Since the Indian Government was busy toppling the Madhya Pradesh Government, it did not bother to take cognizance of the prevalence and spread of coronavirus. It also was of the belief that even if 10,000 Indians die of this virus, it is not much of an issue for it. Hence it is not holding on to the government and not governance which becomes an issue.

The pictures of the ill-treatment of millions of migrant labourers stranded and struggling hit the print and electronic media domestically and globally. People from India and abroad began to criticize the manner in which the lockdown was imposed without any preparation. Faced with criticism the Prime Minister tried to put up a brave front. He kept on arguing that this has to be done, some would have to pay the price and preparation was done. But the keen observes of governance would argue that instead of undertaking some obscurantist action like clapping and banging the plates on 22nd under Janta Curfew, it would have been expedient to announce on 20th that total lockdown would be imposed to contain the virus hence 21st and 22nd March would be days for people to move to their respective places or such place where they would find shelter and food or such place where the government would open up its institutions for this purpose. Even if trains and buses had to be run for this purpose, it would have saved the hardships the migrant labourers had to undergo and also most of these would have reached their home and would have been with their family.

There is an antecedent to this. On 8th November, 2016, the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi announced all of a sudden at night that his government is imposing ‘demonitisation’. The stated objective was to control inflation, to fight against corruption, to remove counterfeit currency and to discourage the cash transaction. But 3 years, down the line none of these objectives have been fulfilled. Only the problems of common ordinary citizens had increased. Many marriages postponed if not broken, small business suffered huge loss, people had to stand in long ques to withdraw their own money and that too was not available, etc. But that time, at least movement of the people was possible while this time it is totally restricted. Now this is not possible at all. It is a fact that those who come out with restrictions like these never go through the hardships the common citizens go through, hence they can impose restrictions in the name of good of the country. If marriages in their families are cancelled or
funeral cannot be conducted, they do not get their salaries, then these kinds of anti-people policies will not be imposed without due preparation.

Conscious political analysts fear that there could be a precedent to be followed from this. This total lock down though imposed in the name of responding to coronavirus, the present regime possibly is trying to test waters to undertake much serious sinister plans masterminded by the religious fundamentalist forces of India. Coming on the wake of the
nationwide protest spearheaded by the youth and students against National Register of Citizens (NRC), Citizens’ Amendment Act (CAA) and
National Population Register (NPR), the present regime was shaken. It never even imagined that such a long drawn out and nationwide protest would go on against its policies. Keeping this in mind, there could be plan to impose similar plans or even try to build the Ram Temple in Ayodhya when lockdown is on. These fears may not be real but they are not totally unfounded.

Crisis Confronting the Country

At this juncture, even passingly, let us try to identify some of the crisis that were and are confronting the country: poverty amidst plenty, increase in unemployment and diseases, increase of distress migrations, swelling of refugee population, technology increasing insecurity, agriculture put into back burner, lack of opportunities for educability and employability for a major segment of youth from rural, marginalized and excluded communities, market driven economy, donor driven development, revival of religions under fundamentalism and fascism, using religion for political purposes, mobocracy and lynching, creating distrust among communities, religious groups, etc. These issues instead of being addressed are further fanned for political interests of some people and politicoreligious affiliation.
While this is the depressing picture, we witness all over the country, the state of affairs of the leadership is even more deplorable. Totally uninspiring leadership, leadership promoting cronyism and mediocrity, sponsoring caste, ethnic, regional and religious groupism and antagonism towards the others not of their own, leadership engaging in all kinds of corrupt practices to stay in power, leadership that displays naked aggression and intimidating the anyone who does not ‘fall in line’. If this is the case in normal times, what would be the case when we are faced with this massive crisis is for anyone to take a call.

Dos and don’ts before the Government

1. First and foremost accept the fact that this is a crisis not easy to comprehend and to respond. Move from a denial mode to anticipatory mode and try to work out responses in all situations and at every time.

2. Accept the fact that when we are talking of India, we are talking of 1340 million population and that too one third of that population live below poverty line and in most vulnerable context. Along with responding to all the population, right from the beginning keep in focus the ‘Antyodaya’ principle of Gandhiji and address the issues of this vulnerable population.

3. Communicate facts and figures authentically. Neither deny the ground reality regarding the number of people tested, affected, quarantined, under treatment, got treated, nor hike the number for some selfish motives.

4. Recongise the socio-cultural truth of India, that in normal time we are divided on the basis of caste, class, gender, religion, region, language, orientations etc. Instead of bridging the gap in the last few decades and years, we have been widening them. It is important to recognize this fact and work towards a collective sense of common destiny of all Indians and for that all need to do their bit to take precautions, prevent the spread of the virus, protect all from this, treat those affected and consider them not as stigmatized but as affected by the virus.

5. Move from government mind set to be inspired by governance principles where personal and party politics are kept in the back burner and citizens safety, security, health and wellbeing is the sole objective.

6. In addition to the package announced already, make provisions for more relief and rehabilitation packages in the coming days. But even more important is to put in place systems and mechanisms to reach these packages to the door steps of all, especially those who are rural based, without bank or Aadhar card, without any political connection.

7. Since the earlier announcement was to have the lockdown till March 31st, do an assessment of the situation and announce that April 1st and 2nd will be days for the migrant labourers to return home in addition to lock down for those who are in their own place. For those from north India but working in south India may be difficult to travel up to north. Hence, open transit points or camps where they can be lodged for the time being and once the situation improves, they can move.

8. Without delay procure more protective gears for the health care staff so that they can assist the country in identifying, quarantining, treating the affected people. In the absence of these, they will not be able to even check the people. Just imposing rules demanding them to work without these protective gears will only be counterproductive. Once this is done, make testing free and compulsory to all the citizens. Private hospitals, medical personal and facilities of these hospitals should be pressed into duty to respond to the crisis.

9. Many of the essential commodities are not available. If they are available, they are very costly. The Bania-Marwari culture of making money in any situation has to be curtailed and monitoring of this has to be done. To declare that provisions will be reached at the doorsteps is only a populist declaration. The reality is different

10. Lots of volunteers are needed and there are many who are willing to offer their service to address this pandemic. Through administrative machinery, NGOs, etc., utilize the services of these people so that more hands are there to address this massive crisis.

11. Instead of blindly saying that the lockdown is for 21 days and thus up to 14th April, it is pertinent to keep on assessing the spread and prevention, treatment, etc. and based on that take appropriate action. This need not be a national response but each state and district and lower units can be considered and stringent rules can be imposed if the situation demands or relax where things are under control.
12. Indians have huge stamina and also resilience. They have seen similar crisis and always feel that this too will pass away and they focus on their objectives. This is both individual and collective. Taking this age old practice, convert personal, family, community, caste concerns as common concern of all the citizens of India and enthuse and energise all to protect
themselves and all, prevent the crisis from spreading, promote wellbeing and progress.