The lockdown worked. It helped battle Covid-19, turn India self-reliant
Health infrastructure was ramped up. The poor received support. Stronger economic foundations were laid
Hindsight is a wonderful thing to have. As Australian-American activist-actress Helen Reddy said, “It’s always very easy to second-guess after the fact.” What is difficult is to decide which actions will have a bearing not just on the present, but on the future. But difficulties also present opportunities.
The Covid-19 crisis is one such example. It allowed the Narendra Modi government the opportunity to devise solutions to build the India of the future. As the virus took the world by surprise, countries were forced to lock down, and India was no exception. India used the lockdown to spread awareness about the coronavirus as it prepared to deal with a disease that has no vaccine, yet. As the country’s 1.3 billion people came together in an unprecedented show of discipline heeding Prime Minister Modi’s call, the government doubled up its efforts to equip hospitals with ventilators, oxygen cylinders, masks, personal protective equipment (PPE) kits and beds. The government also ramped up testing. From one Covid-19 testing lab in March, India now has 1,000. Over seven million people were tested through Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction tests.
India has fared well so far. It has just 151 cases per million compared to over 6,000 cases per million for the United States (US) and Spain. India’s case fatality rate is low at 2.8% compared to Germany (5%), France (19%), the US (6%), Italy (14%) and the United Kingdom (14%).
Rather than resorting to confrontational politics, the government remained committed to cooperative federalism. With the PM having held six meetings with chief ministers over the last three of months to ensure productive engagement, the Centre is giving all necessary guidance and support to the state governments. These efforts will go a long way in strengthening cooperative federalism. Internationally, it ensured medical help to over 80 nations — a move that has cemented India’s global stature as a responsible partner.
Throughout this period, the government has been mindful of the plight of migrant workers. It first reached out to them with the assistance of a ~1.7 lakh crore package. It also ensured that, through direct benefit transfers, relief money was transferred to the accounts of the most vulnerable. Shramik trains also allowed them safe passage back home.
Now, migrants are returning to cities as India is steadily unlocking. As the PM said, green shoots are visible in the economy. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy said India’s unemployment rate has eased to pre-lockdown levels and recovery is expected in the coming months.
The slowdown also led the government to move towards India becoming atmanirbhar (self-reliant). The policy paralysis before the Modi government took office has given way to policy intervention aimed at sustainable development and a self-sufficient economy.
Over the last three months, the government has committed to the creation of 7,200 new self-help groups (SHGs) for the urban poor, including migrant workers. The existing 12,000 SHGs produced over 30 million masks and 120,000 litres of sanitisers. It created employment opportunities for the urban poor. Migrants who have returned to villages have been given jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. These schemes are critical to building infrastructure.
The State also amended the Essential Commodities Act to enable farmers to sell farm produce to a wider spectrum of buyers. The Agricultural Produce Market Committee Act was also amended. It also extended a package of ~3 lakh crore to micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) and amended the definition of MSMEs to allow more businesses to avail these benefits.
To achieve self-sufficiency in coal, the government has announced coal block auctions. This is likely to generate 2.8 lakh jobs, a revenue windfall, and will also help India become atmanirbhar in meeting its energy requirements. And since it was already working towards creating an enabling business environment when the pandemic struck, several policy interventions were made in this regard.
The government has also standardised its labour laws to global standards and made them more humane. The 44 labours laws that existed earlier have been amalgamated into four codes — on wages, industrial relations, social security and safety, health and working conditions. These also take into account gender parity and proportionate representation in the workplace.
The government has decriminalised company law to help businesses grow. It has been pushing for farmers’ produce organisations and primary cooperative societies to solve the problem of credit for farmers, while it merged 10 public sector banks into four to improve efficiency and address the problem of growing non-performing assets.
The response to the Covid-19 crisis has been effective because the government had laid a firm foundation to build a new India over the last six years. The measures the government has announced in the last three months will ensure the rapid development of an atmanirbhar Bharat.