After the serial declaration of the Rs 21 lakh crore stimulus package two months ago and the subsequent announcement of free ration, complacency seems to have seized the Centre based on the assumption that economic revival is now on autopilot. It is getting on with its business as usual with major announcements like the National Education Policy, new guidelines for Environment Impact Assessment, massive revision of labour laws, disinvestment proposals and several trade-related decisions. Of course, the government cannot close shop and wait till the novel coronavirus is tamed.
However, as the government is back to business, there will naturally be criticism and divergent political responses over decisions. The national atmosphere has gone back to the usual slinging match between the ruling party and opposition. The tone of social media messages and public statements are as acerbic as usual. Except for large gatherings prevented by physical distancing and Covid-induced restrictions, politics is back on the national scene in its usual ‘we’ versus ‘they’ format.
The government conveys the unmistakable impression that it really doesn’t care about alternative views on major issues affecting the nation’s destiny. The dilution of the provisions of the EIA and the far-reaching NEP, which have been approved without adequate parliamentary debates, speak of an inexplicable urgency as well as a casualness about discussions in the House. What is being attempted here is not a critique of the several decisions that the government has pushed through without Parliament’s scrutiny but the inadequate appreciation of the ground realities of a Covid-battered society and economy. With no clear end in sight as to how the pandemic will play out, we, like several countries, are still in the tunnel, confronting the unstoppable spread of the virus.
The government’s role in containing this virulence may be limited. But the government can and should act over the socio-economic devastation due to the pandemic. It would be naïve to assume that the packages announced are already ‘stimulating’ the economy. Nothing can be farther from reality. The economic well-being of the vulnerable sections has only declined further in the last two months. Jobs are being lost perhaps faster than the spread of the virus. Cash reserves and social capital among the urban poor are completely depleted with economic activity yet to normalise. Though large regions of the country have been unlocked, consumer behaviour has not regained the earlier buoyancy owing to uncertainties that have embraced all spheres of life.
The reverse migration of the workforce to rural areas has worsened the distress of the farm sector. There is not even one sector of the economy that has not been ravaged by the pandemic. Economic revival is not yet in sight (The economy doesn’t oblige statements made to the contrary). The economic health of society is set to further deteriorate in the coming months. Even if a vaccine hits the market early next year, it will take at least one year for a sizeable number of the 1.4 billion population to be vaccinated. Do our people have the economic resilience to survive that far? It needs to be realised that unless the novel coronavirus is checkmated and the incidence of infection trickles down to almost zero, life will not return to its original and familiar pace and confidence.
Unless all the sectors of the economy taste this freedom, life will continue to be circumscribed, debilitated and minimal. A society that believes in minimal spending and borders on subsistence cannot vitalise an economy. However, the unwholesome national rhetoric refuses to recognise the self-evident fact that Covid-19 is the single major calamity we have faced after the trauma of Partition. The consequences are all-pervasive, overwhelming, deeper, inter-related and unprecedented. Any amount of make-believe grandstanding and statistical jugglery cannot invalidate this hard truth. The real dimensions of human misery are yet to fully unfold.
And the tragic fact is that we as a nation are ill-prepared to meet this situation, offer succour to the most vulnerable sections and harness national energy to respond with compassion, concern and confidence.
A divided polity as we witness today is not the answer. Our national leadership should show statesmanship and rise to shoulder the responsibility history has entrusted upon it. Leadership has to look beyond petty politics, bury the differences and make all responsible political players participants in a formalised national consensus to steer the economy and protect the vulnerable. Political differences can wait but not the crisis of subsistence.
It will be a negligence of lethal consequences if we fail to recognise the crying need for continued handholding of society. The crisis calls for innovative thinking, fearless and uncompromising execution of government schemes. These unusually demanding times—we are still in uncharted waters—make adversarial politics as usual a great luxury. The government should have the patience to keep aside controversial and contentious ideas and policies for normal times. It is a historical imperative that a national consensus is worked out to navigate our way out of this most unnatural and unprecedented national crisis of multiple dimensions.
Ex-Kerala Chief Secretary & Former VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam Varsity