The State needs to step up, urgently| Opinion
Provide food; improve Centre-state mechanisms; communicate better; and show compassionUpdated: Apr 16, 2020 19:23 IST
The harrowing images of migrant workers desperate to go home, hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 19-day extension to the nationwide lockdown on Tuesday, serve as an important reminder of just how brutal the last 21 days have been, and how challenging the next 19 days will be for the lives and livelihoods of most Indians. Our political leadership has collectively determined that the blunt instrument of lockdowns are necessary to fight the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). Inexplicably, however, the task of implementing an appropriate national response to the economic crisis this poses has barely begun.
State governments are stymied by the lack of resources. The Centre is yet to announce a robust fiscal relief package. Finances apart, the sheer scale of relief required, combined with the lack of planning when the first lockdown was announced on March 25, has presented our bureaucracy with an unprecedented logistical challenge. The last 21 days have been spent desperately firefighting through a plethora of government orders to get relief measures, supply chains and essential services moving, leaving little time to devise systems that ensure communication, coordination and ground-level feedback. This is one reason why the police have so freely used their lathis and workers for essential services remain in short supply. Now, as the country enters the next phase of the lockdown with a likely phased opening up of the economy from April 20 onward, these logistical challenges will become even more acute and threaten to undermine potential economic gains. India simply cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the last 21 days. Going forward, at a minimum, three things need to be done.
First and foremost — this has been said many times since March 25, but it needs repetition — universalise the public distribution system (PDS), expand cash transfers and remove all hurdles to accessing entitlements for the next three months. If any further proof is needed of how acute the crisis of hunger is, especially (although not exclusively) for our migrant workers, here are some frightening statistics. Data collected from 11,000 distressed workers across the country by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), a group of volunteers working to provide relief, reports that by the third week of the lockdown, 50% of workers had less than one day’s worth of rations. More worrying, 96% had not received rations from the government while 70% had not received any cooked food. There is no time to be lost. Grains need to move immediately from the Food Corporation of India godowns, and, anyone who approaches the PDS stores should be given their entitlement, regardless of ration cards.
In the medium-term, India may well live through periodic cycles of lockdowns and graded opening up. If workers come back to cities, it will be critical to ensure the hunger crisis doesn’t repeat itself. To do this, the Centre and state governments need to, on a war-footing, put in place a secure, portable food-and-cash security system that allows migrant workers access to benefits from any part of the country. One positive fallout of the current crisis is that chief ministers (CMs) have willingly taken on financial responsibility for the citizens of their states, while their host state has been entrusted with providing benefits. Domicile states are also experimenting with finding ways of delivering cash to their migrant populations through mobile apps. These emergency responses need to be institutionalised and could serve as the basis for portability.
Second, Centre-state coordination. This column has repeatedly made the case for robust coordination mechanisms in dealing with this crisis. Hiccups in the last 21 days, from difficulties with inter-state movement of essential services to delays in procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and testing kits and the multiple clarificatory orders issued, have only underscored why coordination matters. In recent days, forums for deliberation with states have begun to emerge. Consultations with CMs are more frequent and individual ministries too are setting up issue-specific coordination centres, but we need a more systematic institutionalised response to reduce the kind administrative failure witnessed in these last weeks.
Going forward, the coordination challenge will likely become far more complex. The fiscal package, when it is finally announced, will require consultation and coordination with states. To explain, Covid-19 outbreaks will be localised within states placing differential financial needs, linked to state-specific health capacities and socioeconomic profiles. The appropriate financial response will thus have to be agile and mindful of state- and disease-specific needs. This can only be achieved through an institutional platform for consultation with states, akin to the Goods and Services Tax (GST) council. Such a platform will also serve as a check against deploying a central government-controlled fiscal package that fails to respond to ground-level needs. Reviving the inter-state council is one option that ought to be considered.
Third, better communication and transparency. In this phase of graded lockdowns with states, districts and clusters moving between red, orange and green, and local economies opening and closing abruptly, the government will need to be far more transparent and credible about its data, district compliance levels and the rationale behind decisions for locking down, about testing strategies, health system preparedness, economic relief and exit plans. Transparency is the only tool to ensure compliance without State coercion and harassment of citizens.
Finally, as the hardships of the lockdown mount, we must remember that a democracy that treats its citizens with callousness and a complete lack of compassion, cannot survive, regardless of the consequences of an epidemic. The very fact that migrant workers have been denied the basic dignity of going home and two square meals a day, in a moment of crisis, is a serious blot on our democracy. Responding to an epidemic requires a compassionate State. On this metric, the Indian State has thus far failed. It needs to step up, urgently.