COVID-19 stimulus package: The govt has left Indians to fend for themselves
If Sitharaman fails to deliver hope tomorrow, India would be pushed into deep despair. She can have all her policy tinkering but India is looking for something substantial now
People expected more from Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s press conference today. Sadly, she has left India to fend for itself. Every Bharatiya would have to be atmanirbhar now. Sitharaman is a well-meaning person with serious financial constraints and it was clearly visible on Thursday, May 14.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi went live on national television two days ago and announced a Rs 20-lakh-crore package, the nation hoped that all their troubles would soon be over. Two press conferences later, a sad realisation has settled in - the government can at best be a guarantor for your loans. You still have to pay back these loans when the future looks to be filled with uncertainty.
Free food for eight crore migrants for the next two months at a cost of Rs 3,500 crore should have been announced on and executed from Day 1 of the lockdown. On day 50, it seems more like an apology. The government either did not acknowledge their presence or had simply forgotten about them. These eight crore people could have been saved from the pain and humiliation they have gone through over the last two months.
Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sithraman came across as a well-meaning person in her Thursday press conference and her concern for migrants looked genuine. The problem, however, is that she has left India to pretty much fend for itself. The government did make some announcements which would provide some relief in the long term but as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had put it, in the long term, all of us are dead.
The government perhaps still does not understand the extent of the crisis and the urgency of help needed. Latest data from CMIE indicates that almost a third of Indians would be pushed into distress within a week if help does not reach them within the next week. The Prime Minister and the Union Finance Minister perhaps did not realise that almost 1/4th of our working age population has been unemployed for almost two months now and whatever meagre resources they had, have run out now. This is why the entire country was looking up to the Prime Minister and the government to provide immediate relief.
The only silver lining in the Finance Minister’s announcements was the government’s plan to allow the portability of ration cards and allow people to draw food rations wherever they are. This is a good move but perhaps this could have been more useful if the Prime Minister had made this announcement when the lockdown was announced. Almost 2 months into the lockdown, it might just be too little, too late.
The Union Finance Minister was concerned about the migrants but perhaps forgot her cheque-book at home or in the office. The government’s support for the migrants was limited to allowing state governments to utilise SDRF for setting up shelter for migrants and releasing Rs 11,002 crore of its contribution in advance to all states on April 3. The government said it still did not have any data on how many camps were running and how much relief was being provided.
In the middle of all the mayhem, Sitharaman raised the minimum wage for workers from Rs 182 to Rs 202 per day and media reported that states and UTs have also been told to provide jobs to migrants. That was a great announcement with only one problem - industrial activity has come to a halt, there are no jobs and the states have no money.
The biggest concern, however, was with the way the government is defending itself on the transportation of migrant workers. The government first acknowledged that the total number of migrant workers are close to 8 croreand then said around 10 lakh have moved to their home state in 806 trains, which is just about 1.25% of the total migrant workers. How much would these trains have cost?
If the government can not even provide free train rides to workers who make India, should we even take pride in rising a few ranks in international economic rankings? CNN ran a story of a migrant worker resuming her walk home two hours after delivering a baby and this only tells you about the lack of empathy the government has for its people. We are all equal citizens in a democracy and each Indian has equal rights over the nation’s resources.
The government is clueless about how many workers have been forced become ‘atmanirbhar’ and walk hundreds of kilometres to get home. They did not have money to eat, forget buying expensive train tickets for all the family members. Only a really desperate person would walk hundreds of kilometres with a pregnant wife. All said, the Union Finance Minister was upset about the migrant workers not following Prime Minister Modi’s orders to stay where they are. Perhaps, the government does not even care.
Friday would probably be the Union Finance Minister’s last press conference in this series and perhaps her last opportunity to redeem herself and the government. If she fails to deliver hope tomorrow, India would be pushed into deep despair. She can have all her policy tinkering but India is looking for something substantial now.
We are fighting for our lives. Policy nudges will not do.