For sustained recovery, focus on vaccination, rural India and infra push
As India goes through Unlock 2.0, we need to ensure that we act and speak as Team India. With an end-of-the-year deadline to complete the universal vaccination process, and experts warning of the possibility of the third wave of the pandemic, India must decide on immediate priorities very carefully
The second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic may have ebbed, but India cannot lower its guard. Such has been the severity of the pandemic that future historians will probably refer to modern India in terms of “pre-Covid” and “post-Covid” eras.
Over the last 14 months, while the pandemic ravaged global economies, India was adversely impacted too, with its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracting by 23.9% in the April-June quarter of last year. After five different stimulus packages, the Narendra Modi government has now announced a fresh round of relief measures, which will boost health care, support farmers, self-employed persons and small entrepreneurs and will re-energise the economy. Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on June 28 announced a relief package of ₹6.3 lakh crore to support India’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, including a ₹1.1 lakh crore loan guarantee for various Covid-19-affected sectors.
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As India goes through Unlock 2.0, we need to ensure that we act and speak as Team India. With an end-of-the-year deadline to complete the universal vaccination process, and experts warning of the possibility of the third wave of the pandemic, India must decide on immediate priorities very carefully.
A three-pronged strategy can ensure that Indian economic recovery is sustained.
One, in its vaccination guidelines, the Centre rightly suggested to states that health care workers must be prioritised for vaccination, followed by those over 45 years, before opening it up to those above 18 years. The pace of vaccination has been encouraging.
While keeping true to these guidelines, there’s a need to vaccinate the working population on priority, to shield it from the third wave. This will keep the economy in top gear. According to government estimates, around 48% of the people have some kind of employment. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, on the other hand, recently said that the “employment rate fell to 35.3% in May 2021 from 36.8% in April 2021”.
Most industries and services enterprises in the organised sector are already proactively vaccinating their employees. Small businesses and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), and those in rural India, on the other hand, need support. To vaccinate the working Indian population, the Centre, states, and even local governmental institutions and administrative bodies, will have to work together, in mission mode.
Two, rural India has been affected by the second wave. It must get adequate attention.
Three, infrastructure will be a major driver of the economy, as India seeks to regain the momentum lost in the post-Covid-19 era. The National Infrastructure Pipeline is already an important exercise. In the just-announced relief measures of ₹6.3 lakh crore, it’s believed that the additional spend in the current financial year would be in the range of ₹60,000 crore. In the current infra thrust, health care infra has got a welcome shot in the arm.
For a Covid-hit economy, we need to double our focus on infra projects and enhance government spending. The banks must also be encouraged to lend more. That the Aatmanirbhar Bharat Rozgar Yojna has been extended till March next year must be welcomed. More than ₹900 crore of benefits have been availed of, so far. More job-oriented programmes are needed. The increased infra spending will help achieve this.
That there was no central lockdown in the second wave needs to be noticed, and applauded. Severe and prolonged lockdowns, as a philosophy, need to be discouraged. The Union government has rightly advised the states now to decide on localised restrictions “if the positivity rate in an area is more than 10% for more than a week, and if 60% of hospital beds are occupied by Covid patients”. This needs to be further decentralised to district levels. Any ground-level actions, say in the event of a third wave, should be necessitated only by local realities.
Every crisis has a silver lining. The Covid-19 pandemic has indeed tested India’s resolve, resilience and patience. But the crisis has also helped India discover its true hidden potential — the might and potential of United India. Unlock 2.0 is the opportune moment to unleash that potential.
Naveen Jindal is chairman, Jindal Steel & Power Limited and a former Member of Parliament
The views expressed are personal