What if India’s frontline Covid warriors throw in the towel and say ‘not any more’ even as the pandemic spreads relentlessly? What if they said they won’t participate in this fight against the coronavirus anymore and that the governments — from the Centre to the states — should find other janitors, doctors, ambulance drivers, crematorium staff?
It is not a fantasy. If essential service providers are not paid their dues immediately, then this hypothetical scenario could soon become a reality. A few recent incidents are indicative of the poor economic conditions and the governments would do well to pay heed to them.
Last week, doctors of Kasturba and Hindu Rao hospitals in Delhi said they would resign en masse if they did not receive their salaries for the last three months. The matter reached a point where the Delhi High Court had to issue an order that the doctors’ salaries be released.
The situation is similar in many other government hospitals in Delhi. Medical staff are not getting their salaries, hundreds of articles and stories have been written about lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) kits. Sanitation and municipality workers are on the streets — they have not been getting their salaries either. Remember the garbage dumps on the roads of Delhi last year? And this situation is not of Delhi alone – Mumbai and Ahmedabad and several other big cities all over India are experiencing similar issues.
If this is the condition of the Covid warriors in the first line of defence, how is the common public going to battle against this pandemic?
Recall how migrant labourers, barely a month ago, were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes. No food, no water, no slippers – they were left completely on their own during the lockdown period even as the coronavirus continued to spread. In the labourers’ case too, it was the empty pockets that brought upon the misery on them and forced them to take the journey home. Factories were shut and they did not receive their salaries during the lockdown. Some ransacked factories demanding money and some took to the streets to protest, but most left for their home.
Doctors and labourers are not the only one
Similarly, small industries are facing a very serious problem. Factories are shut. Production has come to a standstill but there are some recurring expenses like rent, electricity, etc. The labourers are asking for wages but the owners have no money and many are in debt. Even if the factory owners want to, they are unable to pay.
Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala tweeted claiming that income in cities has fallen by 62 per cent and in villages, it has dwindled by 50 per cent. Fourteen crore people in cities are dependent on their savings and by June that too will be exhausted. What will happen then? The thought induces anxiety.
Although the government had stated during the lockdown that salaries should not be cut and nobody should be fired from their job, no arrangements were made for employers. The result is out for everyone to see.
However, the government continued to assert that its relief package of Rs 3 lakh crore would act as an ointment for the injured economy. Workers, small industries, agriculture – everything is being taken care of. The packages have been distributed but it is not easy to say when the benefits would be seen.
For the common people, these packages have little meaning until they have money in their pocket. Should the government not have transferred money directly into the accounts of those affected? Wasn’t direct relief the best way to deal with this economic crisis? Many economists believe that cash reserves are necessary for both self-reliance and self-respect and the government should consider this. It’s not as if the country is bankrupt – its foreign exchange reserves are at record levels. The deficit is in control. Then why is the Modi government not acting on this?
Besides small undertakings, private sector firms, hospitals, railways — which employs the highest number of people in the country — have also decided to terminate the services of the retired people it had rehired.
Cash transfer is the solution
Financial problems are not endemic to India. Many governments all over the world have provided help to their citizens by giving cash. The Italian government decided to pay two months’ worth of wages to two million employees who suffered losses due to the lockdown. Banks were also asked to help but the money could not reach people due to red tapism. In the US, a proposal planned to give every adult $1,000 and $500 to every child. In South East Asian countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, this programme was implemented. Pakistan, too, has a direct cash transfer plan.
But in India, the money can be directly transferred through Aadhaar, Jan Dhan Yojana and mobile phones – the same routes through which the government transfers ration, subsidies, etc. Initially, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had made announcements towards that end but the amount pledged was too little. Even in MGNREGS, the beneficiaries get money for work but the number of people employed remains a matter of concern.
India has the largest cash transfer system in the world. At this time, the Modi government should rise above fears of corruption and misuse and transfer money directly into the accounts of the people. For this, the government can use its direct cash transfer mechanism and get non-governmental organisations and the private sector on board to ensure that the cash reaches the beneficiaries.
If the benefits do not reach them, people without money will take to the streets. It will then be a herculean task to win the battle against Covid and we might end up paying a bigger price.
During this unprecedented crisis, it is important to help those who are fighting the crisis. But the decisions taken with regards to the lockdown, economic relief and unlocking have shown that policies were framed in bits and pieces, there was lack of coordination between the Centre and the states, and political confrontation dominated the discourse.
Now, the time has come for the Modi government to stop thinking about the package and start doing something about people’s empty ‘pockets’ so that it can gain the support of the masses in tackling this crisis.
Views are personal.
This article has been translated from Hindi. Read the original version here.