‘We’ve to learn to live with Covid-19’, says Delhi deputy CM Manish Sisodia

The long-term after-effects of the lockdown are going to be more dangerous because there will be unemployment; there won’t be any liquidity in the market because of which businesses won’t grow, says Delhi’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia.
Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia during an interview with Hindustan Times on the coronavirus disease.(Amal KS/HT Photo)
Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia during an interview with Hindustan Times on the coronavirus disease.(Amal KS/HT Photo)
Updated on May 05, 2020 06:47 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | BySweta Goswami and Shivani Singh

Delhi’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia spoke to Sweta Goswami and Shivani Singh about the social and economic costs of the national lockdown, the importance of reviving the city’s economy, and learning to live with the “new normal”.

Edited excerpts:

CM Arvind Kejriwal has said that its time to restart the city’s economy, and that Delhi is prepared to handle the rise in Covid-19 cases if it comes as a consequence. Can you quantify the economic cost of the national lockdown to the Capital?
Calculating the economic cost of the lockdown immediately is very difficult because something like this has never happened before. Never before did all kinds of activities come to a standstill at this scale. Businesses, markets, and government and private offices were shut, and operations of even those catering to essential services were curtailed. While economists will have to compare the figures, everything was reduced to zero in the entire city. The economic loss is so huge that it is getting difficult to get an idea of its quantum.

The long-term after-effects of the lockdown are going to be more dangerous because there will be unemployment; there won’t be any liquidity in the market because of which businesses won’t grow.

What about social cost? There are a large number of people who have been left without jobs, with no money and an extremely uncertain future.
When the lockdown was first imposed, scores of migrant workers began to leave Delhi because they did not know how long the restrictions would be in place. It created a massive vacuum in the demand for work and so they chose to head to their villages. But after Delhi started its massive hunger relief programme across the city, these people started settling in at our shelters instead of heading to their home states. We are feeding cooked meals to 10-11 lakh people through lunch and dinner every day.

Being locked at home has its own drawbacks as well. Even if you’re getting food and salaries as part of the work-from-home policy, the idleness creates frustration and despair which gradually manifests into fights. It hampers productivity. So the social impact of this will not only be a job loss, but the productivity of working people will also go down, and personal lives will be affected.

The government undertook an exercise to house and feed migrants and the underprivileged. So far, what has been the financial cost of this essential measure?
In April, we spent over Rs 100 crore on our cooked meal scheme alone. The same cost is likely to be incurred this month as well. Similarly, we are giving free ration to everyone and those who are still left behind are being given ration kits. The total cost borne by the Delhi government in Covid-19 related relief packages has crossed Rs 1,000 crore by now.

How many migrant labourers are still stuck in Delhi? How long will it take to make arrangements for sending all of them home?
The central government has clarified that this facility is not for those who have been staying in a state and working for six months or one year. This scheme is for those who had come to work temporarily and had to return to their home state immediately after getting the work done, but could not because of the lockdown. Such people could be anyone -- tourists, pilgrims, or someone who came for business.

But if you have been staying in Delhi and working, then you have to stay in the Capital. The Delhi government is also taking up confidence-building mechanisms to convince such people to stay in the city.

However, there were also a lot of people who had nowhere to go after the lockdown except their villages. We had stopped around 10,000 such people, all of whom have been staying in our night shelters ever since. We have made a list of people from these shelters who want to go and where they want to go. We are coordinating with the concerned states depending on the locations provided by them.

Migrants are the backbone of Delhi’s economy. If they do go back, and the government is now facilitating that, won’t it have an adverse impact on the city’s functioning?
There are two types of migrants -- those who came temporarily and those who stay in Delhi. It is the Delhi government’s priority to stop those residing in the city from leaving. From today, stand-alone shops, in-situ construction works, and some industries have opened. They will slowly start getting jobs again. Once that happens, I don’t think they would want to leave the city. Our priority now is also to ensure that the demand for work increases in the city.

We have to think about the traders also. We are currently telling traders to pay full wages to their employees, we are also asking them to not charge any rent form their tenants -- how long can they carry on like this? Traders also do not have unlimited money.

Governments have learnt about the coronavirus disease and made necessary preparations in the two months of the lockdown. Now, opening the markets is very important.

The relaxations in curbs allow limited activity only in some sectors. When can those employed in other sectors -- those who have shops in markets, malls, those in the service sector -- hope to get back to work?
On the basis of the count of Covid-19 cases, all of Delhi is in the red zone as of now. There is not going to be a turnaround point of coronavirus in the city. We have to learn to live with the disease as we do with dengue or TB. On the health front, we are making all arrangements to be able to treat a large number of patients.

The relaxations given by the Centre in the red zone are substantial, except that malls and markets such as Connaught Place or Nehru Place cannot open. It is likely that after May 17, the ambit of relaxations is further increased.

How much has the Delhi government lost on the GST collection front? Any demands from the Centre in this regard?
The loss is huge. In April last year, the collection was Rs 3,500 crore. This year, till April 30, we have collected only Rs 400 crore. So, factoring in an anticipated growth of 10%, we are losing around 90% on GST and sales tax etc. On top of that, there are losses in excise etc. The government cannot disburse salaries with just 10% of the usual revenue.

The doctors who are treating us, the junior engineers who are providing water, the food inspectors who are providing ration, the teacher who are imparting online classes, the civil defence volunteers — the government cannot compromise on their salaries. The Delhi government’s expenditure towards salaries of its employees alone is around Rs 3,500 crore per month. It has become a challenge for us to meet our expenditure.

We are now exploring from where the Delhi government can take loans and which sectors can generate more tax.

Is the government planning to restructure salaries or announce pay cuts of its employees?
So far, we have not considered that. But, the rules which have been laid down by the Centre are being implemented in Delhi as well. We are making every effort to pay for the salaries.

Will it affect projects and welfare schemes of the Delhi government as well?
Of course. At present, we have put a blanket ban on all our ongoing projects. We have made it clear that any kind of expenditure, except Covid-19 related, will not be made in any department.

Delhi is a consumption and trading state, not a production one. So even if the lockdown is totally lifted, for at least two-three months, no government project will take off, particularly construction projects which are capital intensive. Paying salary is our priority. Only after that will we decide which flagship schemes to spend on depending on the funds situation.

Any demands from the Centre in terms of funds to make ends meet?
We have asked them to give us money for Covid-19 management as it has given to other states. Similarly, we have also requested them to give us tax-related money such as GST compensation.

In Delhi, the problem we face is that the government cannot take loans like other states. But we have small savings fund loans. Usually we take 50% of this loan. This time, we have already written seeking 100% of the small savings fund loans. We are also exploring if the Centre can take loans on behalf of us.

Liquor shops have been opened from today and Delhi saw massive crowds. Do you think it was the right decision?
We never took any decision specifically on liquor shops. These shops have been opened on the same lines as a clothes shop or a bookshop. The rule of allowing is the same -- it has to be a stand-alone or a neighbourhood shop or one located in a residential area.

Ironically, nobody is reporting on how the children are feeling on getting access to bookshops after two months. Why are people asking only about those who did not get access to liquor?

Nevertheless, liquor is an important aspect of the economy and people also want to buy it. Today, reports of overcrowding outside liquor shops forced the police to shut many such outlets. We have issued directions to ensure strict social distancing and better management for Tuesday.

If the virus is here to stay and we have to learn to live with it, normalcy as we knew it may never return. What are your thoughts on the new normal – both social and economic -- that we may have to get used to?
Coronavirus has forced people to rethink a lot of things -- be it our lifestyle, way of working, and even the use of technology. So many meetings that we used to do physically in this secretariat have shifted to video conferencing. In education, also we are trying how online teaching can add value to education. But, it cannot replace one-to-one teaching.

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Monday, November 29, 2021