Nothing will be the same anymore. Contemporary history will be divided into pre- and post-Covid-19 days. The pandemic came as an eye-opener—the greed of the market and the failure of its neoliberal polity were exposed for all to see.
Its disregard for human life and the public health system caused the biggest tragedy in world history. It was neither a ‘divine comedy’ nor a cyclical crisis, but a systemic debacle. It proved the total bankruptcy of a profit-centred market-driven system. From the US to Turkey and from India to Brazil, it was the same economics and politics that stand accused. It should not be allowed to further play havoc on the people.
Unlocking of the lockdown is now being carried out in different states. One may very well argue about the timing and measures taken by the Central and state governments. It is taking place in the background of a rising severity of the pandemic in the country. Hence, it is not without reason that certain quarters are questioning the loosening of restrictions. But no country can continue to lock down forever.
While unlocking the restrictions, preparedness and precautions are very important. On March 24, the prime minister proclaimed the lockdown through an address to the nation without preparing the ground for it. The miseries and hardships it caused were severe. As it happened, everywhere, the poor were the most affected. After more than 45 days, the government is announcing relaxations in the same casual manner. The poor continue to be the worst hit.
The capitalist part of development is notorious for putting the burden of the crisis on the shoulders of the poor and the common people. In the name of going back to normalcy, they have begun those same old practices again. All of a sudden, they have started thinking about migrant labourers, who constitute 30-40% of the workforce.
One fine morning, the labourers were asked to report at the workplace with immediate effect. Their natural human desire to go to their families was ignored. The Aurangabad tragedy on the rail track was a shocking reminder to the nation of the unbelievable living conditions and struggle for existence of the migrant poor.
The scattered rotis and the bundles of old clothes tell us volumes about their hard-earned ‘wealth’! Official reports say that 383 migrant labourers have died till May 10, which is presumably lower than the actual number of deaths. In fact, they were food refugees of modern India.
These migrant workers represent the distress of the downtrodden in India. The first measure the government needs to take is to address the basic needs of the working people. A minimum amount of Rs 7,500 should reach them immediately.
Former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan estimated that the total amount needed for this may come up to Rs 65,000 crore. This money, reaching the poor, will automatically go back to the local market, never the share market. It will stimulate the economy that needs the flow of money. Nobel laureates like Abhijit Banerjee and Amartya Sen have said the same. There is nothing new in this.
Market economy is accustomed to this crisis-fighting measure since Keynesian days. But the Modi government is hesitant to think even in those terms. Experience says that when the question of the poor comes, the Modi government is not truthful to even capitalist principles.
The latest exercise with regard to the price of petroleum products also proves that theirs is bad economics, ill-advised and mismanaged. With a Rs 200 lakh crore GDP at their disposal, the government should give priority to activating the whole economic process, creating maximum job opportunities and pumping money into the market. For that, their pro-rich policy is the biggest hindrance.
The other day the government came with a new attack on the workers by imposing a ceiling on their Provident Fund. The employers need to remit their share for only up to Rs 15,000, it said. Reports say the working hours are going to be increased from 8 to 12 hours.
Retrenchments have also begun violating the words of the PM. The government talks about the scarcity of resources and on that pretext, plunders from the common people’s pocket. According to official statements, there is a tax recovery due of Rs 8.96 lakh crore.
The government will not bother with that. Instead, it reduced the corporate tax to the tune of Rs 1.45 lakh crore. The government wants to rebuild the economy through squeezing the workers, peasants and the poor. It shows that the government of the rich has not learned any lessons.
The first lesson from the pandemic days is the greatness of human labour. It is a lesson to be understood by the planners and followed by the governments. Labour is an essential part of wealth creation, according to even classical capitalist principles. By not giving their due share, the country cannot progress. It is high time for all those who talk about India’s future and growth to understand this basic truth.
(The author is secretary of CPI’s National Council and leader of the party in Parliament)