This week the elected representatives will troop into Parliament to represent the electors. Ostensibly! Frequently, time set aside to ponder over public cause is hijacked by puerile puffery. If the past is to be treated as the prologue, the four-week Monsoon Session will witness high political drama and the amplification of allegations and counter-allegations ricocheting off the walls of the 1927 edifice.
The pall of grief and gloom unleashed by the pandemic, with millions pushed over the edge of penury, signals the need to put public purpose above partisan politics. The expectation though wholly legitimate may be a tall ask — given the reign of rhetoric. Hopefully, the elected will find the occasion, between bouts of hyperbole and halla bol, to seek answers to questions of those struggling to preserve lives and livelihoods.
What’s Vexing Vaccination: Everyday thousands find themselves standing in the queue of denial as centres run out of vaccines. Compounding the confusion is data on availability. India needs to vaccinate over 92 crore 18-plus individuals with two doses. In May, Indians were told 216 crore vaccine doses will be available by the end of December. By June, the figure dropped by 81 crore to 135 crore doses. Yes, 40 crore doses have been administered but the run rate is slow and the ratio of vaccinated to population is low. So, how does the government plan to bridge the gap? Is there a PPP plan to overcome hesitancy and the rural-urban divide? And, must the scheduling of vaccination on CoWin be such a torture?
What About Schooling: The number of children between 5 and 18 years is estimated at around 300 million. For nearly 18 months, schooling is in suspended and partial animation. Yes, education is a state subject but the loss of schooling will be a national calamity if not addressed urgently. Can the new education minister bring new energy and skills to collaborate with states to address this urgently?
Can Inflation Be Tamed: Food and fuel inflation are denting both demand and growth. Indeed, the RBI has observed that inflation is likely to persist even though “aggregate demand is yet to take shape”. What is critical is context. As this column observed the combination of low returns on savings and high inflation has ravaged family budgets. Can the government spell out its playbook? Persistent inflation carries economic and political consequences.
Cost Of Fuel Taxes: This year, Centre and states will likely harvest over Rs 5.5 lakh crore in fuel taxes. Fuel taxes are impacting low-yield segments such as agriculture, adding costs to the entire value chain as also global competitiveness of exporters and MSMEs who employ the bulk of the workforce. Is this a sustainable model for creating a low cost, high growth economy? Does the government have a plan for de-addiction?
How Many Deaths: The issue of compensation for Covid victims awaits judicial verdict. The Ministry of Health states total deaths due to Covid as 4,13,091. The Annual Report of the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2019 stated that a fifth of deaths are not reported and the Annual Report of Medical Certification of Cause of Death (2017) states less than a fourth of deaths were certified. How does the government estimate who and how many people died of Covid?
The Job Loss Tally: Data on unemployment, rather than on employment, in India is at best sketchy. The Economic Survey uses NSO 68th Round besides EPF, ESI and NPF. In 2021, the Survey cites the Periodic Labour Force 2017-18 to state that worker population ratio is 34.7 (that is percentage of employed persons in the population). Does the government know how many jobs have been lost due to the pandemic? What is the current status? And, what is the state of women workforce participation?
Vacant Government Posts: There are around a million government posts vacant across governments — Centre and states. The central government has over six lakh vacant posts of which 2.79 lakh are in the railways and 1.11 lakh in central paramilitary forces. In the states, over 5.31 lakh posts of police personnel, 3.42 lakh teachers are lying vacant. Given the circumstance of inadequate job creation, the moot question is what explains the persistence of vacant posts across ministries in the Centre and in the states?
Caring For Centres: In December 2019, the government revealed that ‘3,62,940 AWCs do not have toilets facilities and 1,59,568 AWCs do not have drinking water facilities.’ Given the pandemic and the critical need for access to care have amends been made? In September 2020, the government cited Rural Health Service 2019 report and had revealed that PHCs were understaffed — posts of 1,484 doctors, 5,800 nurse, 7,220 pharmacists, 12,462 lab technicians and 6,492 auxiliary staff were vacant. Has there been an improvement?
Whither Reopening Plans: Countries across the world are conjuring, carving, creating plans for reopening in concert with vaccinations. What are India’s plans? Sure, the states are empowered but the country is yet under the NDMA. So, at what level of vaccination would re-opening of the economy be feasible and what kind of deadline is the Centre looking at?
These are a few of the questions haunting the political economy which MPs must ask, questions Indians want answers to in the Monsoon Session.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India
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