COVID-19 war: Where are India’s rich, its temples?

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Published: May 8, 2020 5:01:29 AM

In an unprecedented crisis, you would expect them to take full responsibility for lakhs of poor; as they did in ancient times.

NITI Aayog has suggested the government should come out with a stimulus of around Rs 10 lakh crore, but the government is worried about the possibility of a sovereign downgrade and its impact. NITI Aayog has suggested the government should come out with a stimulus of around Rs 10 lakh crore, but the government is worried about the possibility of a sovereign downgrade and its impact.

Many have criticised prime minister Narendra Modi for—like he did with Balakot and the surgical strikes—once again making an event of a national calamity. If asking citizens to clang vessels and light lamps wasn’t enough, he got the armed forces to shower petals on hospitals and to organise fly-pasts as if we had won some war. But we are at war, aren’t we? We may be far from winning, but we are fighting against an enemy we know little of, a Chinese virus that for the first time in four decades may ensure the economy actually contracts, and crores of poor workers rendered jobless.

Similarly, Modi has been attacked, and with some justification, for not doing enough for state governments that have been bankrupted by the virus; and if this wasn’t bad enough, as Pronab Sen pointed out (bit.ly/3fkTCzd), Modi made this worse by banning alcohol and e-commerce in ‘non-essentials’ that comprise 30-40% of what the states earn on their own. And, while it could be argued that—the e-tail ban, for instance—this was to reduce the spread of the Wuhan virus, it is inexplicable that while the central government can spend almost any amount, nothing has been done to ease constraints on states. How anti-cooperative-federalism the Centre is, of course, is best judged by the fact that CSR funding is allowed for the PM-Cares fund, but not for various CM-Care funds. Certainly, the Centre is doing the right thing by paying the states their share of central collections that was envisaged at the time the budget was formulated even though tax collections have been completely shot since (bit.ly/2zaojGV); but the largesse is limited, and while this is to be done till January, the compression after that will be huge.

Modi is also criticised, from both sides ironically, for his handling of the crisis. Having done a good job with checking the spread—from doubling every three days initially to this happening every 11 days by the end of the third lockdown—there is one group who felt Modi should have extended the lockdown; another group feels the economy should be opened up faster. Instead of giving the states more leeway, Modi is even deciding where a barber shop should be allowed to open, and this newspaper has endorsed Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s call to define red zones more narrowly to keep economic activity going (bit.ly/3fkzu08).

Both groups, though, agree that, if the Centre is so all-knowing, how did it get it so wrong on the migrants, by not allowing them to go home in the first place.

As a result, they were locked up in camps run by state governments and, it appears, not even properly fed. And, when they were finally sent home, the Railways asked the bankrupt states to pay for part of the transport costs; never mind that, at the same time, the Railways was donating money to the PM-Care fund!

There are no simple answers, or definitive ones either, to any of the questions and there is no group of people who agree on a common solution either. Indeed, a New York Times piece (nyti.ms/2zUcbKh) sums up how the virus has affected even neighbouring countries differently, making it clear there is no one model that anyone can follow. Even the famous Swedish example of not locking down the economy—cited by almost everyone who thinks Modi has killed the economy—has been re-examined and found to be a lot less attractive than originally thought (bloom.bg/2SBjNrL); indeed, Sweden’s deaths per million people are higher than those of even the US. That the Swedish model can hardly apply to a country which has a population density that is 19 times higher—the Swedes don’t need to practise ‘social distancing’!—and a per capita income which is seven times lower, doesn’t seem to deter the critics.

But, whether you believe Modi should have opened the economy faster or continued with the lockdown—both, ironically, to save lives!—there can be no doubt that India has never faced a situation like the current one; an economic crisis can be dealt with, so can a natural disaster, but this is one where we know so little about the enemy or even how it attacks our body (bit.ly/3c01LXP). Even in a situation like this, amazingly, there is little political unanimity; while the prime minister does not seem to be looking for all-party consensus, it is not as if the Congress or any of the opposition parties have any well-thought-out solutions either.

No matter how you look at it, whether Modi should have extended the lockdown—and paid workers their wages to stay at home—or whether he should support Indian enterprises stay afloat, there is little doubt he needs a lot of money. NITI Aayog has suggested the government should come out with a stimulus of around Rs 10 lakh crore, but the government is worried about the possibility of a sovereign downgrade and its impact. Based on analysis by market demographics firm Price, this column (bit.ly/2L2K7qA) estimated the poorest 40% of the population alone need Rs 1.3 lakh crore per month to protect their incomes; the cost of the NPAs and what is needed to ensure MSMEs don’t shut shop are separate.

Surely in a situation like this, it is fair to assume that India’s rich and its famous temples would part with their riches to take full responsibility for the poor; why should the burden be that of the government alone? We’ve seen what India’s rich have donated, and OpIndia has a partial list (bit.ly/3b4z22P) of what India’s temples have given; most are also providing food to thousands of people every day. While the amounts appear large, at a time like this, you’d expect a lot more; the rich selling some of their shares and the temples their gold to ensure income support for the poor for several months, for instance. This is not the place to give details of the wealth of the rich or the temples, nor is it a suggestion that the government force them to part with it, but surely these are extraordinary times. This is not Modi’s battle, it is ours.

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