The Prime Minister, while announcing the extension of the lockdown till May 3, laid down seven steps for Indians to stay safe. He called it ‘Saptapadi’, inviting people to wonder at steps the Government must take to keep citizens safe.
Indeed, on two important measures required to strengthen the battle against the pandemic, he was virtually silent. These are providing adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health workers and large-scale testing amongst the people.
On the contrary, the Prime Minister claimed credit for announcing an early lockdown because of which he said we have been able to contain the spread of the pandemic. The lockdown was declared in India on March 24 though the first case in India was reported on January 30. No substantive measures were taken for seven long weeks before the lockdown.
Normal activities continued with the Parliament in session, toppling of an elected government in Madhya Pradesh and the swearing-in of a BJP state government on the eve of the Prime Minister’s announcement of the Janata Curfew on March 22. Though formal restrictions against large gatherings were in place, none of these actions violating these guidelines was stopped.
As far as the lockdown is concerned, many countries in the world had moved with greater urgency – China locked down Wuhan on January 23, whole of Italy locked down on March10, USA declared a national emergency on March 13, Spain on March 14, France on March 17 and UK on March 23.
Hence, the PM’s assertion that India declared an early lock- down is patently incorrect. PM claimed that India started checking all travellers from abroad very early. Then, it is strange that Italian tourists with infection entered in February along with many others, who later tested positive. PM also claimed that adequate testing was being done.
Testing is of crucial importance to identify the clusters where the pandemic is spreading in order to isolate and insulate them to contain the community spread. Inadequate testing does not provide us such information. It is dangerous, both, for the inability to contain the spread and to identify the critical areas. Is India test- ing enough as the PM claimed?
Well, compared to South Korea, India was testing at a level which was 241 times lower till the first week of April. Availability of food to the poor is causing concern. Long queues for food in the city and sparse but credible reports from rural areas of food shortages are coming in every day. We must ensure that there are no starvation deaths that occur in our country.
The Rs 1.7 lakh crore financial package announced is meagre, less than 0.8 per cent of our GDP. Malaysia has announced a fiscal stimulus package of 16 per cent of its GDP, USA more than9 per cent, Germany more than 8 per cent, Italy more than 5 per cent, and so on. India, in comparison, has been very miserly, bordering on being criminal, in its efforts to protect human life.
The states are on the front lines in battling this pandemic. Instead of strengthening their efforts, they are even being denied their legitimate financial dues by the centre. This can- not be allowed. The greater the amount of finances in the hands of the state governments, that more effective would be India’s fight against the pandemic.
Thousands of crores of rupees that are being collected by the prime minister in a fund, that bears his name, must be transferred to the states. The states must be allowed to borrow beyond the current ceiling imposed by the centre to meet this health emergency.
The Prime Minister had appealed on March 24 that no worker should be retrenched. He repeated this appeal to the employers in his address on April 14. But mere appeals cannot work and have not worked. Already thousands of regular workers have been retrenched. All daily workers, casual and temporary have already lost their jobs.
There is a large-scale wage cut that has come into force during this lockdown. Many countries in the world, some to the tune of 80 per cent of the wage bill, have announced packages to support the employers to maintain the jobs and wages.
The Indian government has done nothing like this so far. This is the harvesting season. The government must ensure compulsory procurement on the declared C2+50 percent support price. The reports of no work under MGNREGA are disturbing.
All those registered must be paid their wages irrespective of work. Special arrangements must be made by the central government for the return of the migrant workers, who are living without adequate food or proper shelter in various parts of the country, back to their homes.
Except in states like Kerala, where they are being well looked after by the state government with people’s support, in all other states, they are existing in agonising conditions. India had, rightly, evacuated many stranded Indians from foreign countries.
Surely, we can organise special trains and buses for our own brethren in India. This is essential to stem the dangers of large-scale community transmission. It needs to be underlined that only a united India and united people can succeed in this battle.
All efforts to socially or communally polarise our people will only weaken and undermine our struggle. It is, indeed, most unfortunate that the prime minister, in his address to the nation, did not even mention, forget denouncing or decrying such trends of social boycotts, communal isolation and targeting of communities based on religion. It’s high time that the government adopts a charter for itself. He may like to call this charter ‘Navapadi’ if he so likes.
1. Procure and provide required PPEs
2. Rapidly increase testing
3. Cash transfer of Rs 7,500 immediately to all non- income-tax paying people.
4. Distribution of free food grains to all needy
5. Raise financial stimulus package from the cur- rent 0.8 per cent to at least 5 percent of GDP.
6. Support state governments with liberal funding
7. Procure harvested crops at the declared C2+50 per cent support price and pay wages to all registered under MGNREGA, irrespective of work
8. Financially assist employers to protect workers from job losses and wage cuts
9. Arrange for the return of migrant workers to their homes. (The author is General Secretary, CPI(M). Syndicated by IPA)