As the beleaguered economy is trying to limp back to some kind of normalcy, the social distortions and hardships imposed by the pandemic continue to cast its pall of gloom. The country has realised that continued lockdown is not a viable option (despite the dangers) as its economic fallout is debilitating. The social, economic and psychological consequences of the lockdown and still-prevailing restrictions have not been appreciated by governments in their true magnitude. The sad spectacle of reverse migration of workers from urban areas has evoked nationwide indignation and criticism while the responses of governments have been tepid.
The plight of migrant workers is not a case in isolation, though the scale of their suffering is different and their endurance and resilience heroic. While some of the tragic instances where several workers trudging back home lost their lives have shocked the nation’s conscience, hundreds of equally dreadful instances that defy explanation have been reported.
An embargo imposed on the local population by an influential political leader in a town in UP against feeding the fatigued migrant workers is too far-fetched to believe. Media photographers have been forcefully prevented in several places from capturing the misery of migrant workers as that would embarrass the ruling dispensation. Several instances of the police beating up these hapless workers have been reported. The woefully inadequate transit camps set up in many states are eloquent examples of lack of concern. (Kerala’s example of providing a kit containing food, water and other essentials to each of the migrant workers leaving for home is a comforting narrative.)
The long-lasting consequences of the pandemic, and more of the lockdown, present a gloomy tapestry of disruptions, loss and pain. The anguish of daily wage earners, street vendors, small shop owners, millions in the informal sector, contract employees, farmers with overdue debts and those who lost their jobs, whose businesses have been hit and whose prospects of success have been smashed seem to have escaped the cognition of the Centre and several state governments.
Arguably, no government can anticipate every situation as life is incomprehensibly varied. Yet, there has to be an awareness of the issues that the government wishes to address. When governments react to an extraordinary situation like this, the state constructs a map of the problems as it comprehends them. It is on this map that the state models its policy and programme responses. Whose problems and fears get poignantly etched on this map, and whose sufferings and deprivation are represented rather feebly, is what decides the nature of responses. And this mapping is a political exercise, not an objective representation. So all the issues that are politically necessary and useful get the prime space on the map, while politically inconvenient ones, however humane they may be, get a namesake representation.
The politically powerful class always has the leverage to influence policies, legislations and programmes of governments, regardless of the political party in power. The slew of legal and financial measures accompanying the much-hyped Rs 20 lakh crore booster package has clearly spelt out the sympathies and priorities of the government. It is not being argued that the package has no impact on the economy. In fact, the package is quite clear about the outcome and its probable beneficiaries.
The moot question is not what the package addresses but what it chooses to ignore. In an unprecedented traumatic period like this, the helping arm of the state ought to have first reached out to the poorest and the vulnerable. The tell-tale evidence of this indifference is the lack of any new programme to address the complex livelihood issues at the grassroots level. The government’s heavy dependence on banks to come to the rescue of the micro-entrepreneur, the small trader and the poor farmer in distress is misplaced as bank credit is no substitute for directly funded government schemes.
If the plight of the poor really troubles the state, it ought to have responded with a specially designed programme with considerable flexibility to address the diverse and specific needs of the poor spread across the states. The government seems to believe that the existing ‘yojanas’ can address every conceivable problem and the existing administrative culture is good enough to deliver their benefits. Had the government been really concerned, it would have behaved differently with greater sensitivity, responded with innovative schemes and ensured enhanced accountability of the bureaucracy.
Surprisingly, no such impatience is evident. On the other hand, it seems to be impatient and in a hurry to mutilate labour laws, giving greater freedom to the employer to negotiate and decide wages and working hours. The state seems to have no qualms in diluting environmental laws in its eagerness to achieve instant economic growth. Amendments are reportedly on the anvil to even whitewash economic offences, presumably to give greater flexibility to business. While every one of us has been asked to wear a mask, the state stands unmasked in its unconcealed dalliance with the wealth-producing class while being deaf and dumb to the woes of the poor and the powerless.
Ex-Kerala Chief Secretary, ex-VC,Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam Varsity