This might be the Wave that will Lift All of Us up

The lockdown has treated different people in different ways, depending on their social position.
Illustrations By Prabha Shankar
Illustrations By Prabha Shankar

These are tough times. The world is locked down and everything has come to a grinding halt. Economists, political leaders and scientists are predicting various things based on their conviction. Most of them are gloomy, some are overtly optimistic. This is one of the moments in history when individuals feel helpless when powers beyond one’s comprehension confront them. This is not the first time humanity has faced a crisis of this proportion, nor is it going to be the last. We will come out of it for sure, like we had of the two World Wars, countless epidemics, colonialism, slavery and what not.

The lockdown has treated different people in different ways, depending on their social position. For the salaried well-off, this has been a time for their much yearned-for time off. This had been a time to show off one’s culinary skills, binge-watch web series, dust off the books that were brought many years ago and abandoned midway and to whine away time in the WhatsApp group debates. The only people who are not affected are the born rich or the government servants.

There might be some cut in dearness allowance and some other minor inconveniences, but overall, the future appears as solid and boring as the past. For the rest, this has been a time of uncertainty, fear and tension. The entrepreneurs—big, small and tiny—will face the greatest brunt of the uncertain future and this will have ripple effects on daily wagers, small-time vendors and everyone in between. 

The government is sending notices to job givers that they shouldn’t reduce manpower or salary at the time of lockdown. When the supply chains have broken down, when there is no consumption and business has become nil, how are the job givers supposed to provide for their employees? Some, who could afford to do so, may do it as an act of charity.

For most, who are sure to be haunted by the creditors, banks and landlords, following this is going to be like buying an express ticket to bankruptcy, which again is going to affect the very people who it is supposed to help. When government itself is cutting some parts of salary of its employees, it is unethical to ask the private entrepreneurs to pay the full salary. One is surprised by the ultra left wing assumption of the advisory that all businesses are run by the mega rich with tonnes of money as spare change and the state’s duty is to squeeze them dry. On the other hand, it is inhuman not to think about the plight of those who are at the bottom of the pyramid. The state cannot abdicate its responsibility of looking after the week and place them on the shoulders of the entrepreneurs—big, small, medium or tiny. Those who took the path of secured jobs, the one coveted by the Indian middle-class, seem to have been vindicated in this crisis.

This is something India can ill-afford. The licence raj was the era of empty slogans like Gharibi Hatao and ridiculous rates of growth. India’s economic boom happened when the society learned to respect the entrepreneur over the bureaucrat or the born rich. Surprisingly, in the hour of crisis, those who drove India’s growth have been thanklessly forgotten. The debates in the media have been centered around how well or worse the poor are being treated. We are being flooded with the heart-wrenching images of migrant labourers walking home for miles with all their possessions slung over their shoulders, sometimes carrying babies or invalid parents. They deserve to be discussed and there is no doubt about the need of shaking the conscience, if there is one, of India’s privileged class occasionally. 

The desperate plight of the poor in this crisis is the symptom of the rot and not the crisis. That will resolve itself if we fix the root cause. Every crisis is an opportunity. Entrepreneurship comes naturally to Indians. The sheer number of vendors, small shops and eateries in any Indian city is a proof of that. The small and medium enterprise and start-ups must be supported with easier credits and loan moratorium. This is the time to fast-forward the much-needed labour reforms and fix the minimum wages at a much higher rate than what it is now to improve purchasing power.

For small enterprise, the hourly wage system should be implemented, giving flexibility to both job provider and seeker. Indian youth desperately need jobs and big MNCs, even those that we may perhaps attract from China at a great concession and cost, are not the ones who are going to provide it in sufficient numbers. After 1992 crisis, we have been handed over another opportunity to leap forward. Thinking positively, there could be a huge consumer boom once the pandemic blows over. Majority of Indians may be poor, but thanks to our huge population, there are sufficient wealthy people who would go on a consumption rampage once the pandemic peters out and this could happen all over the world. If we are prepared, this might be the wave that will lift all of us up.

Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy

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The New Indian Express