Can a nation be locked by the state?

Bhaskar Majumder

Anybody home-living knows birth leads to death – living is a journey between the two ends on a time span unspecified in spite of astrologer’s Koshthi/Kundali. Everybody knows most of the deaths occur at home for home-loving people and occur on the cot. Still people live at home and breathe their last on cot. They go to bed at night – excepting some who are habitual sleepers (those with high propensity to sleep). So people in India, 1300 million by number as population, happily remained home-locked – waiting for departure of soul? No, it was their state-sponsored leisure and contemplating about the indefinite future.

Meanwhile economists have started predicting the impact of lockdown based on serious econometric calculations engaged in premier research institutes in Delhi and elsewhere. In most of these I failed to find the face of the migrant worker in particular and common people in general. But it is not my personal problem – it is the question on India’s civilization – Otithi Devo Bhavo – Guests are God. How were the guests, I mean the migrant workers, treated at the destinations? In most of the cases they were lured (paid advance wage) to join works based on oral contract delinked de facto from human rights. But rights are for human beings in the first place. 

The majority nation was happily home-locked in Tali-Thali-Diwali while the migrant workers were destination-locked expecting to be rescued by the state. That was not to happen for first 40+ days of lockdown. One academician asked me three decades back if USSR could disintegrate, what could be India’s fate. I assured him India was already in cultural disintegration – it did not need any further disintegration. This cultural disintegration shows India living in many centuries with regions – not necessarily states on the circumference – differentiated by sanskar-parampara. But one thing came out to be common post-Corona 2019/2020 – everybody loves his/her life (excepting the migrant workers) so that everybody got locked – workless. It is already three-quarter of first 100 days of announcement and locked persons are not sure if they are to be inside home or outside home.

Based on my WhatsApp technology I came to know that local EMU trains were not running and a few buses in Kolkata proper were on their wheels with very few persons trying to avail those buses. I was informed that educational institutions were closed till date that could have been one major reason why crowd had been crowded out. In the sub-urban areas of North 24 Parganas, few people were coming out based on the possibility to be driven away by police. In the Heartland I am not sure about moving out though common people assured me, “Aap ko kuch nehi karega’’. Perhaps the terrorizing factor was police law-locked.

It seems to me that unlocking of working people is a necessity for non-working people also need to eat what comes from the crop field that implies there has to be Kishan to cultivate whatever be the zone – red, yellow, green. Of course, crop field is generally green unless it is ripe wheat or mustard. The lockdown also proved that education or service sector does not matter much in public life. One proxy of course has been set in motion – online.

Are we now locked or unlocked post-75 days of lockdown? Whatever it is, people learnt to be locked, remain happy with lockhood (the condition of living home-locked), and spend some more time – like romanticism of togetherness. A population of 1300 million could be locked – unimaginable – for 75 days+. But some remain very active like the Parliamentarians, executives, military, police, corporate, media, and above all health warriors. They must have been outside home – were they affected by Corona virus? I don’t have data. The data that I got access to was the death of migrant workers on road for whatever reason it was – reason would vary of course – and Corona-Mahakaal that accelerated to take India’s rank to 5th depending on latest data.

My understanding is locking will not lessen the power of the key to unlock road to death. Most of the people in India earn on a daily basis – they work in the unorganized segment of the economy. Most of the children of less equal families come to Anganwari centres to get mid-day meal. Most of the domestic women workers come to work in Maalkin’s house to get not only wages but also food and daan (in kind). Most of the ad hoc workers like liftmen, security guards, and drivers wait for the immediate employer to get re-engaged. The rickshaw pullers and street vendors wait for passengers and customers. All these are outside the corporate sector that the state decided would revive the economy. At best that would hijack the economy.

What is needed is food-money at the hands of the bottom sections of the society post-Corona lockdown and post Amphan and all that. India that is Bharat does not belong only to the top (sic) 1.0 per cent asset-rich population. If the state accepts it, then the question of political will comes. Next follows state capacity. I have no doubt that the state of India is omnipotent to print money, bring back money from abroad, collect donations from corporate and go for decentralized planning to reconstruct the local and ensure the livelihood of the most affected.

I calculated household expenditure based on Census method taking all the households (it was 79 then) in village Bhaganpur in Allahabad district in Uttar Pradesh in 2005 where I forgot to take into account repetitive and multiple uses of the same item, say, a piece of cloth. Based on that and my recent practice of living alone the life of a poor man by expenditure minimization for four calendar years (2015-2018), I can say a poor person does not need more than Rs. 1,500/- per month at current prices for I could live by Rs. 2,000/- per month (even if it may seem surprising to my readers). By this estimate and if the poor person’s family is constituted by five members, in town it will be maximum Rs. 7,500/- per month cost of living and much less in villages. The state may think to assure this sum to village poor and slum poor. The experiment of guaranteeing this income-support for the poor should continue at least for six months to encompass restoration of poor farmer’s cropland in rural areas and houses in both rural and urban slum areas. 

At the moment all the returnee migrant families are poor – the need is to register them and ensure that they get this sum for at least next six months beginning with July 2020 unless they are retained at home (not home-locked) state to be re-engaged in works – be it MNREGA works or urban public works. The other support measures are subject to further unfolding like the extent of indebtedness and adjustment of advance wages taken prior to migration and so on.

The minimum income assurance is not to be a substitute of universal food security and compulsory preventive health care measures. Corona has shown that the poor can also be medically tested, even if it is to keep the elite safe. Let it continue at zero-cost. Let there be a little bit free lunch for the poor that benefits the non-poor also.                

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Jun 10, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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