Addressing the nation on May 12 — in the backdrop of a loud demand for economic stimulus, criticism of the handling of migrants and the growing impatience of the people with corona prohibitions — Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an economic recovery package of Rs twenty lakh crore, acknowledged the importance of rebuilding the economy bottom-up without relaxing on the aim of achieving global supremacy and reminded everybody that “self-control” should be the weapon of combat against the pandemic even when “Lockdown 4” — the name he gave to the phase beginning next week — granted all possible relaxations.
What is remarkable about the address is that it confirmed that the Prime Minister was way ahead of his advisors and political colleagues when it came to taking big decisions. His image as a leader of personal integrity who was also a hard task master and whose policy decisions were generally deemed to be in national interest, remains intact. That is why even “demonetization”, that had resulted in traumatic hardship for the ordinary bank account holders, was ultimately accepted as something done with good intentions. The long corona lockdown declared by him on March 24 also met with public acceptance — notwithstanding its repercussions for the weak and the poor.
The turnout of vast numbers of migrant labour in large cities like Delhi to head back in panic to their village homes, hundreds of miles away, on foot with their children, became a saga of human suffering by the time the Centre took cognisance of it. It evoked a narrative in the opposition camp that Prime Minister Modi had shown an “authoritarian” streak in disregarding the reality of rural India sending out millions of people to urban centres for earning their livelihood as daily wage workers. This is an unfair personal criticism as Narendra Modi is a compassionate person who himself rose from a humble background to become the country’ s Prime Minister on his popularitybb ratings.
As the announcement of the lockdown on March 24 had not mandated that full payment will be made by the employers to the low paid workers for that period — with necessary aid from the government — the Prime Minister has now made up for it through a “quantum jump” that sets apart nearly ten per cent of India’s GDP as economic stimulus for different sectors, including MSMEs. Hopefully, this should enable a bulk of low salary employees and daily wage earners thrown out of employment, to get back to work. It is to be seen how this impacts the migrant labour scene.
Presuming that the BJP had the advantage of getting a feedback from its leaders from North India who were aware of the enormity of scale on which labour from there migrated to metropolitan cities for livelihood, the experts and administrators on whom Prime Minister Modi banked heavily, might have opted for a slightly nuanced implementation of the lockdown — allowing for mitigating arrangements to be made in time for the uprooted migrant labour. The handling of the pandemic on the whole has certainly earned appreciation for India in the world outside, primarily because Prime Minister Modi led the battle from the front. The fight against corona, however, tested the administrative machinery of the Centre and the states for quick decision making. Even after the authorities woke up to the humanitarian problem created by the unplanned movement of migrants in various parts of the country, the fumbling response seemingly fell short of issuing a firm mandate of the Union government to the state governments to appoint DMs as the nodal officers for micro-managing the food, shelter and travel arrangements of the distressed lot in their areas.
The Centre would have sorted out any issue of funding raised by them in this regard. Some needy being turned back from public distribution outlets for lack of ration cards when the country had enough food grain supplies or the Railways bureaucrats allowing the issue of sharing of the cost of tickets for special trains run for migrants, to become a public controversy — forgetting that the higher objective of the Centre was to be able to announce free travel for the affected people and ensure hassle-free but safe interstate movement for them — are two illustrations of flawed governance at the local and central levels . The angle of political morality of such actions was completely lost on the officials concerned.
Prime Minister Modi has done well to use his broadcast to the nation to explain how the strategy of economic recovery will have to follow India’s own model of self-reliance and local enterprise that took special care of the poor and the weak. Since the corona pandemic is a long-term challenge for us, its handling in the days ahead must take care of the three main inadequacies that had shown up earlier.
First, the national policy framed on a study of internal and global scene had to flow from the Union government and, therefore, the Centre should have no reluctance about ensuring uniform implementation of the principle-based relaxations allowed in different phases. Secondly, in what is now a rising unhealthy trend, the state governments have used the classification of zones in the country relating to the severity of corona spread to block inter-state movement on their own. This cannot be done since restrictiveness is around districts that are in red or orange zones — not around states and since all citizens of India had the same right of movement within the Centre’s Dos and Don’ts. No state can indulge in politics on this. Incidentally, some responsible Ministers with their single track thinking on the need of ‘labour for production’ wanted the migrants to be blocked by the states — missing out completely on the human side of the manpower-factory output equation. When the enterprises are ready to resume work, they have to be prepared to spend a little extra for getting their people back to the workplace.
Lastly, in a world devastated by the corona pandemic, where the known rules of global trade may not apply for a long time, India has to formulate its own strategy of economic restoration which will have to be a combination of highly automated production centres and smaller businesses that could work with affordable locally available manpower. The economic revival in India will have to be indigenous — Prime Minister Modi’s call of “vocal for local” is incisive and timely indeed. What will be of help in this is the noticeable trend of people seeking self-sufficiency within their townships, areas and comfort zones. India’s economy will always have the potential of making a global impact. The development model for India, meanwhile, has to reflect both — support for the “creators of wealth” and concern for the well-being of the common people.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)