The arrival of Covid-19 has created a disaster of unimaginable proportions across the world and in the country. India has witnessed a series of Lockdowns, starting with a Janata Curfew for a day followed by draconian lockdowns without parallel in the world. These have caused unimaginable suffering for the people of the country, especially those in cities with limited incomes. As this is being written, the number of cases continues to rise, and the lockdowns have been slowly lifted and the country is in now in the unlock phase.
There has been widespread condemnation of the apathy and lack of support for the millions across the length and breadth of the country from several sections of society. It is quite clear that there has been significant derogation of duty on part of all government agencies.
Before the Covid crisis arrived on the scene, there was also an atmosphere of political ferment with protests against the notorious Citizenship Amendment Act and other attendant issues. Protests of the type that were seen in Shaheen Bagh were unprecedented in the last years. The Covid crisis has provided a perfect opportunity to shut down all the protests, to arrest and incarcerate several leaders of the movements and to completely block any discussion on the economy.
Despite all the above on May 30, 2020 the Prime Minister wrote an Open Letter to the people of the country in order to mark the first year of the NDA 2.0 in office. In this letter, he speaks of converting a crisis into an opportunity. Indeed, events have shown that there are many who had already converted the situation into an opportunity and many more were to follow. It would therefore be important to take stock of the situation. By doing so, those interested genuinely in finding a solution that face the people of India would be empowered.
Whereas the suggestion from the Prime Minister is that we must begin on a path of reconstruction of the country and meet the objectives of what he has termed as `atmanirbharta’ or self-reliance, he also exhorted the people of India to face the calamity with calmness and called for sacrifice and determination. As if to prime all of us to this latter, one of the first responses of the Government within days of the announcement of the first lockdown in March was to impose a freeze on the Dearness Allowance for Government employees for 1.5 years. Stated differently it seems that the Covid-19 crisis provided an immediate pretext for the Government to impose fiscal austerity on its own employees in order to save money.
Many important structural changes to the economy and policy, bypassing normal channels of scrutiny and discussion including, e.g., debates in State Legislative Assemblies or Parliamentary debates, for instance, have been made. During the period of the crisis, many State Governments started one after another to pass executive orders to suspend protection for workers due to the Factories Act of 1948 that limit the working day to 8 hours a day. Under the pretext of attracting investment the Adityanath Government in UP has even issued an ordinance to eliminate most laws protecting rights of workers for a period of three years. The MP and Gujarat governments have made similar moves. Thus it would be fair to conclude that the Chief Ministers of State Governments have been periodically conferring on how to transform the crisis into an opportunity. The opportunity, of course, being one to lay open their states for reckless exploitation of labour. Some of the executive orders have now been withdrawn due to the uproar in protest in many states.
Around the same time the Government announced the formation of a new fund known as the PM CARES that would collect funds for relief, offering generous tax-breaks for donors, while staying out of the normal processes of audit and disbursement. Even Ministries started to send around directives that voluntary donations should be channelled into this, rather than to the conventional Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. No one seems to know why there should be one more fund of this type and why this fund should be exempt from the normal rules of financial discipline and rigour.
It may also be recalled that before the Covid crisis hit, there was considerable discussion on the poor performance of the economy and collapse of various sectors. No sooner has the Covid crisis arrived in full strength, and in the atmosphere of the various lockdowns, all discussions on the state of the economy have come to a stop. Furthermore, it is now entirely possible that all the present problems will simply be pushed under the carpet of Covid, without any discussion of really ails the Indian economy. It has been an excellent opportunity for the Government to cover up its disastrous policies and performance.
As a response to the difficult conditions caused by successive Lockdowns, the Government then put forward the idea of a stimulus package of twenty lakh crores, the terms of which were explained by the Finance Minister. As one ploughed into the details, it emerged that most of the aid was not really aid but borrowing at current interest rates that would be facilitated. But it emerges that most of the conditions are so stringent that it will not offer any relief to the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME), which have a substantial presence in the economy. This sector was already affected by the Demonetization and the GST regimes, and the series of lockdowns are now ready to sound the death-knell to this sector. The space in the economy that would be vacated by these would be filled by much larger corporations and business houses. A brand new opportunity has arisen for the monopolies on a scale that was unimaginable before the Covid crisis.
It may be recalled here that Demonetization and cashless economies themselves have been advocated by such personages as Bill Gates, who is one of the richest men in the world. Through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, considerable penetration of other countries is done especially in the sector of vaccination. There is much talk about the need and development of vaccines and the need to conduct clinical trials and make them available for the world market. Thus there are those who are fishing for opportunities amid the Covid crisis.
Thus the series of Lockdowns have hardly been of any benefit for the people of India. They have already been turned into an opportunity for some as described above. And these are not very happy opportunities for the most. It has been good for those who will benefit from the reconstruction and those who will benefit from extended working hours. It will also be a time when the government under the pretext of fiscal austerity and discipline will cut back even further into social spending. Thus the next years are not going to be a picnic for the people of India.
And yet, in the midst of this there is an opportunity lurking for all those who are interested in the future of India and its people. This is an opportunity to expose the manner in which the Indian economy and political systems work. It is an opportunity to demonstrate that the policies of all Governments of the past have not created a situation where the people of India can consider their country as in any way developed. It is also an opportunity to ask in whose interests do the Governments rule and to expose the simple fact that Government exists only to facilitate the enrichment of vested interests. It is an opportunity to also spell out priorities for the people. The people of India should come together and demand that they too should be allowed to participate in the affairs of running the country. Let us also convert this crisis into an opportunity.