Oxfam report on growing inequality demolished PM Modi’s claims of a ‘new India’

As per the Oxfam report, rich Indians prospered immensely during the pandemic while the workers, the unorganized and the salaried employees suffered job losses

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: PTI)

Nitya Chakraborty

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has mastered the art of promising the moon to the distressed Indians. Addressing a meeting in Kolkata to celebrate the birth anniversary of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Modi said that, “Today the world is seeing India in a new avatar, from LAC to LOC, wherever anyone is trying to pose any challenge to the territorial sovereignty of the country, is given a befitting reply”. He added that Netaji would be satisfied and proud to see this ‘new self reliant India’.

But what is happening to the builders of that ‘new India’? Within 48 hours of the Prime Minister’s address, a report released by Oxfam for the year 2020 revealed that the Indian poor were the most distressed in the world among the developing countries in 2020 due to the impact of Covid-19 pandemic as also imposition of strictest lockdown without any requisite planning to take care of the vulnerable sections.

What is most disquieting is that the rich Indians have prospered immensely during the pandemic while the workers, the unorganized and the salaried employees suffered job losses.

The Oxfam report, in its Indian section, candidly reveals how the economy has functioned, and whom the policy interventions of the Modi government have helped. All the talk of the Prime Minister helping the beleaguered Indians impacted by the pandemic and consequent lockdowns in varying phases have been exposed The fact is that the wealth of Indian billionaires increased by a massive 35% in the last 10 months.

The Oxfam report states that just the increase in wealth of the top 100 billionaires could sustain MGNREGA for ten years. These billionaires have reaped maximum benefits from the stimulus of the Modi government and this has only widened the inequality further during the 2020-21 fiscal.

As per the findings of Oxfam, 1,70,000 people lost their jobs every hour in April 2020. That was the harshest period of the first lockdown. After that, in varying phases, the workers started going back to work, but even after ten months after the lockdown was announced on March 24 last year, the jobs have not gone back to the pre-lockdown level.

The companies have started operations with less workers leading to a staggering rise in the number of the unemployed. A CMIE report says that many of the companies are making higher profits this fiscal at the cost of job contraction. The corporates are flourishing in many sectors but the jobs are shrinking.

To add to all these negative indicators, inequality has increased dramatically in spread and intensity, with Oxfam calling Covid an “inequality virus”. This burgeoning inequality is never taken into account by the policy makers of the BJP government in Budget discussions and the indications are no different for the coming 2021-22 Budget. The removal of inequality and immediate programmes for tackling the distress of the unemployed and the job losers are reportedly getting no special attention from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry.

Prime Minister is enamoured of his own slogans for ‘Atmanirbhar India’ and ‘New India’ while neglecting those very millions who are the builders of his promised India.

The Modi government has acted against the interests of both labour and the farmers who are the real builders of India, taking advantage of the pandemic and thereby restricting the scope for discussions and consultations in a democratic manner.

The four labour codes were passed in the Parliament in a hurry in the last session without proper consultations with the central trade unions. The CTUs have declared their decision not to accept this and they have boycotted the meeting with the Union Labour Minister.

Similarly, the annadatas, the farmers are agitating for the last two months near the borders of Delhi. Though there was some unseemly conduct by some agitators during the tractor parade on Republic Day, especially in Red Fort area, the huge number of farmers behaved in a peaceful and dignified manner and all efforts by the government to divide them vertically, have not achieved any success. The farmers’ unions are determined on their demand for the repeal of the three farm laws.

The Indian labourers are enraged due to attacks on their job security and the farmers are on the streets for protecting the food security and their land. So who are left to build the ‘New India’ promised by our Prime Minister? The farmers have done their best in the current fiscal by showing positive growth when the entire economy except agriculture sector was down.

MGNREGA, which was earlier criticized by the Modi government, too helped in a big way in dealing with rural distress in the period of pandemic and lockdowns. As prominent food security activist Nikhil Dey pointed out recently, amongst relief and revival measures, what actually saved vast numbers of people from hunger, starvation, and destitution was MGNREGA and the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Dey also said the 20211-22 Budget is being framed at a time when millions of people have migrated back to their villages, and many are still there.

If it had not been for MGNREGA and NFSA, the distress would have been even more acute, and we would have probably seen food riots, anarchy, violence, and uncontrollable protests on the ground. These were laws that this government dismissed, and derisively commented on as useless handouts earlier.

1.56 crore new job cards have been issued, and an additional 2.79 crore workers have sought and got work through MGNREGA. At the time after the pandemic when 30% of women dropped out of the workforce, MGNREGA provided an additional avenue for paid work with 1.05 crore more women coming to work on MGNREGA this year. In fact, MGNREGA is one of the most progressive gender oriented forms of paid work where more than 47% of the workforce is women, who get work near home, on projects that strengthen their development infrastructure, and where money goes directly into their bank accounts.

In addition, there is an existing provision to expand MGNREGA relief to 150 days in case of a “natural disaster”. However, despite the dire need, with many households completing their 100 days of work, this provision has not been activated. It would also require higher financial allocation.

Despite COVID-19 being an unprecedented national disaster, and letters from many states to the central government asking them to provide an additional 50 days of work and additional funds, the government of India has steadfastly refused to pass the requisite orders.

The Budget has to expand the scope of work of MGNREGA. If possible, the labour days should be increased to 150 days instead of the present 100 days. The outlay has to be doubled during the 2021-22 fiscal. This higher allocation along with a special programme for the urban poor and unemployed is a must for tackling the issue of immediate distress of the affected population.

The transfer of funds to the vulnerable sections is the only way to deal with the surging inequality in the society. This will also pep up consumption and consequent demand. This will contribute to the revival of the economy in its own way, apart from the other growth oriented measures planned in the budget. The 2021-22 budget makers can only ignore this task to the peril of the Indian economy.

Views expressed are personal

(IPA Service)

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