What The Prime Should Have Announced - But Didn't

Raman Swamy

Announcement of a total and complete lockdown countrywide is easier ordered than implemented.  The Prime Minister’s second address to the nation laid repeated stress on the “stay at home” aspect but steered clear of spelling out many important aspects -  a) how urban Indians will put food on the table for their children for the next 21  days if they are not allowed to step outside their front doors?; b) what about those millions who do not have the luxury of living in pucca houses?;  c) in what way will this impact rural India, where the vast majority of the population lives?

A national address of this nature and significance could have dealt with certain vital policy decisions, logistical measures and special financial provisions for the most vulnerable in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.   But the Prime Minister did not touch on these matters which could have provided greater clarity on how his government intends to handle the biggest health crisis the country has ever faced.

Nor did the Prime Minister list out the essential services that would be treated as exceptions to the ban on coming out on the streets.  Apart from mentioning doctors, nurses and paramedics; as well as policemen and media, Modi refrained from even stating that a full and exhaustive list of essential services would be made public immediately after his address or in the coming day. 

Delay in identifying who is exempt from the drastic “lakshman rekha” rule is bound to cause uncertainty and anxiety, particularly for families which have to remain at home for the next three weeks with knowing how they can replenish their stocks of food items and other daily essentials. 

At one level, a virus attack on the scale of the Covid-19 requires draconian precautions, responses and safeguards  -- but as many, including Shiv Sena leaders, have pointed out,  the seriousness of the situation was reduced by the Prime Minister’s first address last Thursday when he asked people to clap and cheer for the medical professionals.  This had the effect of lowering rather than heightening the public perception of the gravity of the deadly disease – instead there were grotesque scenes of celebrations and smiling families happily clanging plates and even dancing.  Coronavirus is not a laughing matter.  There is nothing in the ugly disease to celebrate - especially at a time when India is said to be entering the fearsome Third Stage of “community spread” during which the number of infected persons could increase like wildfire and even exceed lakhs of citizens.  Not all of them will be fatalities but the lack of hospital beds, ventilators and oxygen cylinders is bound to make the suffering of the patients extremely unpleasant.    

What some experts had been hoping for was that the Prime Minister would make some far reaching announcements to actually empower various virus warriors to act effectively. 

Among the measures that need to be taken urgently are firstly to nationalise and expand health facilities – this say experts is essential to make quality health services accessible to all.   Also, the government should ensure on a war footing speedy effective testing of people with symptoms.  Related measures are to provide masks, sanitisers and clean, hygienic treatment, isolation facilities for all affected through public investment and forcing the corporate companies to pay.

Without these basics, coronavirus cannot be defeated merely by urban Indians obediently staying at home for the next 21 days, clapping hands from their balconies.  

In Rural India, a comprehensive package for the peasantry, agricultural workers is of paramount importance and it should have been mentioned in the Prime Minister’s address to the Nation, but wasn’t.   

As suggested by many agricultural experts, there is a strong case for all vulnerable sections among the peasantry to be paid a cash allowance of Rs.5000 along with free seeds and subsidized agricultural inputs, free food grains and rations for the next six months.  Such measures should be continued subject to reassessment of scenario, free medical check-up and treatment for COVID-19.

The harsh truth is that India lives in its villages and today the peasantry is in extreme distress due to slowdown in marketing, price crash, wastage and spoilage of vegetables, fruits, flowers, milk, poultry and meat.   The Lockdown has also led to a scenario where farm produce is not marketable.  Industrial closure also adversely affects the peasantry.

The central government should make an assessment of losses with adequate compensation and make immediate announcement regarding this and also extend an interim assistance package forthwith.

Moreover, all loans of the landless, agricultural workers, tenants, sharecroppers, small and middle farmers must be waived forthwith and Income losses to the peasantry due to disruption must be assessed and they must be adequately compensated. 

MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) should be used on mission mode to make up for wage losses to the agricultural workers and rural workers.

The Central Government and States should ensure food, shelter and medical facilities to those who have lost employment due to lockdown and have not been able to return to their States due to stopping of rail and other transport facilities.  Merely ordering migrant workers to “stay wherever they are”, as the Prime Minister instructed them during his Address,  is unrealistic and inhumane.   

The need of the hour is for the Central Government should refrain from rhetoric and outline concrete special packages, stimulus and confidence building measures including Special Contingency Fund for assisting States, for building health infrastructure and meeting the socio-economic crisis.

Key beneficiaries should include healthcare and sanitation workers as well as personnel helping in maintenance of essential services should be given adequate protection and all contract posts must be regularised.

Above all, instead of threatening to book ordinary citizens to step out of their houses in the coming day the focus should be on cracking down on hoarding and black-marketing, and price gouging which has become rampant already.

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Mar 25, 2020

Raman Swamy

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