A Way Out of Covid Crisis Based on Equality and Justice

Bharat Dogra

The crisis brought by Covid-19 was not just a health crisis. Very soon this also turned into an economic crisis, a livelihood crisis and also an educational crisis. It is the poor who suffered from these various aspects of the crisis, and inequalities were greatly accentuated. The Oxfam inequality report released very recently on January 25 has highlighted these aspects of the Covid-crisis and recommended a many-sided recovery plan which is based largely on the reduction of inequalities and a fairer and just deal to the poor who have suffered the most.

Amitabh Behar, who heads Oxfam India, said at the release of this report, “The pandemic has shaken the world to its very core. It has exposed the fault lines in our societies and economies but has also paved a way for transformative policies for a just and equal world. Newer and creative ways of catering to the needs of the masses is possible if governments are committed to the needs of its people. It is time for Government of India to take specific and concrete actions that will build a better future. We can build a future that is not led by billionaires, but by citizens’ voices who seek a more equal and just future.”

More specifically this report has highlighted the following aspects of a recovery plan which will help India to come out of the many-sided Covid crisis while also taking special care of the needs of the poor and marginalized sections.

1.Reinforcing Commitment to reducing inequality
This report recommends strongly that India should recommit itself to the constitutional principle of equality. Aligning with the SDG-10, Government of India has identified a set of indicators and formulated an index to measure the performance to reduce inequality. To strengthen this initiative, the report recommends that the government must set a timeline for regular revisiting and tracking of the indicators and index at the state and national level. This should be a participative effort, involving many organizations of people and public spirited intellectuals as well. The government also needs to design the annual plan of action in every year to reduce inequality, in a situation of transparency and interaction.. 

2.Enacting a fundamental right to health for every citizen of India
The Oxfam report reminds us that while provision for healthcare is mandated in Part IV of the Indian Constitution (Directive Principles of State Policy), it is  not enforceable. On the back of an unprecedented health crisis, this report argues, it is time to introduce a legal obligation on the part of the government to fulfil basic healthcare rights. India should, furthermore localise the targets and indicators to reduce health inequality at the sub-state(district) level and design a community-based monitoring system through involvement of Gaon Kalyan Samitis(GKS) and Village Health Sanitation and Nutrition Committee(VHNSC) to monitor the health outcomes and inequality;

Further this report argues that India needs to enhance its budgetary allocation to the tune of 2.5 percent of GDP to reinvigorate the public health system, reduce out of pocket expenditure and strengthen health prevention and promotion. Indian government must Commit to regulate private health care providers. All the state governments must adopt and implement the Clinical Establishment Act. To protect patients from exploitation, all states must notify the Patients’ Rights Charter forwarded to them by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The report calls upon the government to establish medical colleges with district hospitals, more specifically those in hilly, tribal, rural areas with less health infrastructure. This would facilitate availability of medical services and human resources in those areas as well as increase the number of medical professionals in the country. Another recommendation is to strengthen Primary Health Centres (PHCs), sub-centres, Community Health Centers(CHCs) and government hospitals with adequate number of doctors, nurses, paramedics, equipment and other infrastructural requirements as per Indian Public Health Standard (IPHS) norms to make quality health service available within 3 Km radii of peoples’ residence or workplace. In addition, free medicine and diagnostic facility must be available at the health centres.

3.Addressing new and old educational inequalities
The Oxfam report has emphasized that the COVID-19 pandemic induced crisis has put the future of young people at risk, as too many are foregoing or losing access to education, especially girls and other economically and socially excluded groups. The report recommends that India must ensure safe and equitable reopening of educational institutions. State governments should reopen schools not just for higher grades but also for early grades  to ensure that younger children who cannot learn independently get access to learning through in-person classes as well as due entitlements such as Midday meal, uniforms and textbooks. This report argues that the government should provide a stimulus packages that mitigates learning losses and gets marginalized children and girls into school; increase–or at least maintain–public education expenditure, in line with its commitments made as part of the 2020 Global Education Meeting declaration. 

Arbitrary hiking of school fees should be prevented through issuance of a notification under the provisions of Section 10 (2) (1) of the Disaster Management Act. There is also an urgent need to develop and enforce a comprehensive regulatory framework for private schools including fee regulation to prevent overcharging, exploitation and exclusion of children.

4.Building economically resilient communities
COVID-19 has shattered the livelihood of the communities’ dependent on the wages. This has also led to a dramatic loss of human life worldwide and presents an unprecedented challenge to food systems and the world of work. In this situation the report argues that bringing the economy into track would require actions to reset lost livelihoods and income of the communities. Thus, India must revise minimum wages and enhance at regular intervals on the basis of Consumer Price Index.

Monitoring mechanisms should also be endorsed to ensure that informal workers as domestic workers receive minimum wages. Informal workers should be formalised through written contracts and provided access to social security benefits such as medical, paid and maternity leave, and Provident Fund. Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)s should be established for the employers those who are employing migrant labourers to make provision of minimum facilities at the work place and on their behaviours towards the workers during pandemic. District labour officers should maintain a MIS of informal and migrant workers (inflow and outflow). Economic rescue and recovery packages targeted to the poor, informal workers and vulnerable groups be made available.

The Oxfam report recommends that  unpaid care work should be recognized and efforts at the community level made to normalize the redistribution of care work across the genders as well as by providing state support mechanisms such as crèches at work sites; access to safe drinking water, sanitation and cooking gas. The government should also consider iinstituting an urban employment guarantee scheme along the lines of MGNREGA to ensure a safety net for informal sector and migrant workers in urban areas who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Other recommendation are that the  government must extend days of work under MNREGP to 200 to make up for lost employment and prevent distress migration;  continue provision of 5 kg wheat/rice per person along with 1 kg dal (per household) to eligible individualsunder the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana even after the worst of the pandemic is over, to ensure continued food security of the most marginalised families and individuals; and create a INR 50,000 crores Emergency Workers Welfare Fund which can add to and complement the state relief packages and allow states with limited fiscal capacity to rely on central assistance.

5.Adopting Progressive Tax Policies:
The Oxfam report argues strongly that the  COVID-19 crisis must be a turning point in the taxation of the richest individuals and big corporations. Progressive taxation of the richest members of the society must be the cornerstone of any equitable recovery from the crisis. A more specific recommendation is to impose an additional surcharge of 2 percent on income tax for the tax payers in the income slab of more than INR 50 Lakhs and also to introduce a temporary tax on companies making windfall profits during the pandemic. The burden on the poor must be reduced by making reduction /exemption from GST on essential goods and services.

The writer is a journalist and author who has been involved with several social movements.

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Jan 30, 2021

Bharat Dogra

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