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Wednesday, 22 April 2020


   It is time to accept that the global mayhem currently playing out has not all been created by the Coronavirus- it is a catalyst which has exposed the many problems that already existed- chief among
 them being rampant ( and increasing) inequality, pathetic health care systems, lack of social safety nets and environmental degradation. COVID 19 is not just a public health issue- it will begin as one, but its real impact in times to come shall be on livelihoods, social structures, economic models and our ways of life. Limiting myself to India, it is clear that if we don't reform our governance immediately, we will be even more vulnerable to COVID 22 or 23 when it comes around again, as it inevitably shall. There is only so much dependence that can be placed on Ayurveda, Pranayam, Yoga, lock downs and lighting of candles.
   Take the economic model that reigns supreme these days, and has since the 1990s- the neo liberal capitalist theory. Its false Gods are GDP and the creation of wealth, never mind that the top 1% of Indians own 51.3% of the national wealth, leaving only 4.8% for the bottom 60%; putting it another way, 12 million Indians own four times the wealth held by 953 million Indians ( OXFAM report, Davos 2020). The coronavirus is just a temporary nuisance for the former, but a life and death issue for the latter, as the misery and mass suffering of millions of migrants and abandoned labourers in Mumbai, Anand Vihar, Surat, Hyderabad, etc testify to. It is expected that perhaps as many as 200 million additional Indians shall be pushed below the poverty line this year, adding to the 250 million already there. Many will not even be able to access the PDS rations because they are either migrants or do not have ration cards; the collapsed economy will render tens of millions unemployed for a long time. COVID has exposed the inequity and hollowness of the economic model we have been following and it is time to throw out the billionaire with the bath water. It is public values, and not private values, which should shape our economic planning; the distribution of wealth is as vital as the creation of wealth, and the wretched must be given their rightful place at the high table, they should have first claim to the nation's resources.
   Noam Chomsky, the American philosopher and linguist in an interview to DIEM TV ( which all of us must watch) does not mince his words. He ascribes the devastating economic impact of COVID 19 to a " neo-liberal plague", a " savage neo-liberalism" the script of which has been dictated to governments by their " corporate masters". In an alarming aside he further warns that "authoritarian states are quite compatible with neo-liberalism." We have seen enough evidence of this in India too, particularly over the last six years. Corona is telling us that this mould has to be broken, the "Daridranarayan" of Mahatma Gandhi, not the billionaire of Davos, must now become the focal point of all economic planning. A country with more than a third of its population below the poverty line, and with a current unemployment rate of 24% ( rising every day), cannot even think of any other model.
   The time for Universal Basic Income( UBI) has arrived. What India's 800 million poor/ migrant/ landless population desperately needs now is a safety net, not just an uncertain 10 kgs of rice, which in any case is not available to the 139 million migrant workers ( Census 2011) who lack a ration card or even a BPL card. Leading economists and Nobel prize winners have been imploring the central govt. to dispense with these requirements at a time like this when starvation is just over the horizon, but the response would put a four toed sloth to shame.
   UBI is already being tested on a pilot basis in some countries, but the time for clinical trials is over and it must be implemented in the next few months. Vijay Joshi, an eminent Oxford economist, has estimated in a study that giving Rs. 17500 to each household in India every year would cost 3.5% of GDP or about Rupees seven lakh crores. A lot of this, however, can be recouped by doing away with many non-merit subsidies which currently total up to 7.5% of our GDP. Moreover, UBI does not have to be universal: it can be restricted to only the BPL and the migrant workers, in which form its financial implication would be significantly less. We already have the required digital and banking architecture to implement this- the famed JAM trilogy of Jan Dhan, Aadhar and Mobiles; using it for welfare is much better than employing it for surveillance. Combined with a more inclusive PDS, while the UBI cannot prevent the poor from falling,  it can at least ensure that they will rise again some day when the jobs return.
   Exiled by force from their jobs and the cities, almost the entire labour force has now reverse- migrated to their villages, presenting a problematic irony: now that parts of the economy are re-opening there are no workers to turn the wheels of commerce and industry. There is no labour for agricultural operations, 85% of truck drivers have simply abandoned their vehicles ( and freight) on the roads and fled, most construction labour have gone. In their absence supply chains will remain disrupted, and resumption of industry and businesses delayed, for months. The labour are not likely to return soon after their horrific experiences, their fear of further indignities and uncertainties outstrips their fear of the virus.
Even if the inevitable prospect of starvation in the villages forces them to return, the same script will be repeated when the next Corona strikes. To prevent a recurrence of the humanitarian tragedy now playing out, it is imperative that they be assured of a minimum income. Not ad -hoc, temporary doles but a permanent, assured income which will enable them to weather any future storms, stay put, and resume working when the clouds have gone.
  Lack of financial resources can no longer be an alibi for the government to deny them a UBI. A country which aspires to be a five trillion dollar economy cannot allow almost half its population to wallow in poverty and live a life of extreme indignity. Our economic model can no longer be dictated by corporates who have siphoned off ten lakh crore rupees under the guise of NPAs- sufficient, if recovered, to fund UBI for the next five years. This is not just an economic crisis, as Dalal Street would have us believe, but a civilisational crisis for the country as a whole. Worse, it is an existential crisis for our poor: Ms Sitharaman may not admit it, but it takes more than five hundred rupees a month, ten kilos of rice and a police lathi to keep body and soul together. Ask that weeping young worker we all saw on TV at Anand Vihar the other day, without any money, job or food; he just wanted to walk back home in UP two hundred miles away but was not even being allowed to do that.
He has probably gone now but ask yourself- Why in hell should he want to come back? And if he doesn't, then how in hell do we become a five trillion dollar economy?


  1. If we are agreed that deep inequality is the basis of our dismal state of being, we do need to agree by and large on a roadmap out of this inequality. And inequality is not just economic. I don’t think most decision makers have a clue what to do about caste discrimination? How on earth do we get men to respect our women? Under nutrition and malnutrition in millions of underweight and anaemic mothers and children; an education that adds one as another number in our demographic nightmare etc. etc.?

    So trenchantly pointed out how Covid 19 has exposed the fragility of the world’s 4th or 5th or 6th economic power aspiring to be 5 trillion USD in another 4 years. But there is an issue with the poverty line itself, as there always has been I suppose, which makes the impact far more horrendous and the recovery too far away on the count of inequality alone.
    The Tendulkar Committee rural / urban poverty line comes to Rs 22.4 / 28.7 per capita per day. This made 355 million BPL which number jumps to 455 million BPL when Rangarajan Committee Rs 26.7 / 39.9 are applied, as of 2009-10. After 2011-12 we stopped estimating BPLs as it was becoming too embarrassing. The issue is with these per capita per day amounts which by any reckoning take human dignity away even if they are technically defensible. We are now in 2020 and in absence of revised inequality estimates are probably too frightened to get realistic numbers. If 950 million of us have as much as 12 million rich amongst us, and half of these 950 million are BPL (as above), then the state of the APL is also very precarious. By the end of this year we add another 200 million to the BPL, obviously from the present APL category. Are we then looking at 650 -700 million BPL even when we go by the ridiculous per capita per day income figures of 2009-10?! I do not know if a democracy which is dictated to by the Corporates will have an answer.
    Where do we go post Covid 19?

  2. This has become a bit of a bitter battle at home. But I pull ahead because I have been in severe epidemic situations before. That was when the pox, influenza and measles were regularly taking down children. Dying. Can't feel more helpless than then.
    Lock-down was not heard of. The impracticality of it was very high because so much depended on a functioning world. And the whole idea was to keep the world functional.
    'Complete lock-down' is the last word before full scale panic. And panic was not what we did. By training. So, careful vigilance, test when available but isolation to begin with and then as the cases multiplied, straight into quarantined shutdown of those affected.
    Early separation worked, as fewer and fewer contracted. Quarantine worked because it was the prevention for others. Both worked to spread a degree of peace. Stress gave way and healing was allowed to happen and the sheer numbers added comfort; that one was not alone and there were examples everyday of those getting better and discharged, as a powerful expectation, a determination even, that one would get out too.
    Outside support and smooth functioning was critical but a given. Food, medicines, doctor visits, swabbing, cleaning, checking, nutrition and diet and a gradual, slow merry-go-round of beds, between those recovered and those coming in.
    The admin was huge but a great confidence builder. So yes, a craven yes to the wife. Lock-down has helped but only as long as there's a support system. Without that it's like going for a shower and coming back because there wasn't enough water to bathe in. Just to wet the hair.
    So here's hoping that the authorities have not wasted time again and are ready with pretty much all that is required to keep a city going as well as ensuring that those ill or borderline are in the best possible quarantine conditions.

  3. It is as if you have said all that.that has been making me feel so low,esp.when we watched TV reports on the helpless suffering migrants,esp the kids, the pregnant women carrying their childrn, perspiring and heaving but no choice of stopping for a minute!