Covid19 Pandemic, Lockdown and ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’


  • June 2, 2020
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Though the idea of imposition of lockdown and surveillance for controlling the pandemic was not the result of any conspiracy of international capital or the state, as some leftist critics would have it, yet this provided a delightful opportunity to the BJP government to further its political and economic agenda, writes Pranab Kanti Basu.

 

The Atmanirbhar Bharat Parts 1 to 5 together with other measures adopted during this period are either thinly disguised election propaganda or downright cynical implementation of the socio-economic agenda of BJP taking advantage of the absence of mass protests. Some of the measures that were announced as part of Atmanirbhar Bharat had very little to do with bringing relief to the distressed or with self reliance; they were mainly policies that are tuned to take the country further down the liberalisation, privatisation path inaugurated by the Congress in 1991. These measures include the following.

 

  • Privatisation of coal mining
  • Implementation of National Mineral Policy 2019, of creating Exclusive Mining Zones where licences to private parties will be expedited bypassing forest land and environment obstacles.
  • Measures to allow greater private sector participation in space, atomic research and power distribution.
  • Increasing limit of foreign investment in defence manufacture.
  • To ease it’s privatisation agenda Nirmala Sitharam, the Finance Minister, has inaugurated a new concept ‘corporatisation’ in place of ‘privatisation’. She explains that this means the PSEs (Private Sector Enterprises) will be listed on the stock exchane and their shares traded. Obviously, we need to be mentally envigorated with gomutra to see the difference.
  • Abolition of list of sectors reserved for PSEs

 

The audacity of the Modi government is remarkable. None of these measures are in any way designed to making India self reliant (atmanirbhar) though they are part of Atmanirbhar Bharat package announced with much fanfare by Nirmala Sitaram over 5 days from 13th to 17th May. Gross disregard for the misery of the tens of millions whose livelihood is challenged by the economic crisis caused by the pandemic and containment policies comes through when the government, instead of announcing measures for instant relief and for long term revival of the economy, announces measures for privatisation and for easing of capital’s plunder of the environment and for displacement of adivasi population in the mineral rich forest tracts.

 

The argument is that if capital is encouraged to grow it will provide employment to those out of job. The most charitable assessment would be that the government is idiotic. Private capital was facing a crisis of demand in the sectors where it had freedom to operate and now the government is offering it new avenues of investment. Even if they do invest in these new areas that would simply displace potential public sector investment without creating new jobs. The immediate auctioning of 50 coal blocks and 500 mineral blocks for private sector mining shows the cynical exploitation of a public health emergency to push through its agenda of sell out to mining barons regardless of the cost to environment and livelihood of the tribal population that will be displaced from these forest areas. Instead of providing relief to the marginal the government has displayed alacrity in devising strategy of long term immiseration of the most marginal segments.

 

Apart from the pro-capital measures adopted by the Modi government, the state governments run by the BJP and also some Congress Party ruled states have also taken the opportunity of absence of mass protests to push for anti-labour measures. The governments of UP, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have issued ordinances that actually informalise formal labour at a time the informally employed migrant workers are dying by the tens and hundreds as they try to get back home. A number of similar changes have been adopted in labour laws in all these states, indicating that this is part of the central agenda of the BJP

 

  • hiring and firing in firms operating with 50 to 100 workers has been made easier (to allow labour ‘flexibility’)
  • inspection of factories and workplaces, to ensure that safety and health standards are maintained, has been relaxed
  • working hours of shifts have been increased from eight to twelve
  • curbs have been placed on activities of labour unions

 

These states argue that flexibility in the labour market will give a boost to the industrial sector that is languishing from a depression further heightened by the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic. Given that the pre-existing crisis as well as that triggered by the lockdown is rooted in the lack of demand, such cost-cutting measures (accompanied by reduction in purchasing power of the poor) will only lead to further inequality and consequent loss of demand. However that is not the major issue here. The most visible human crisis caused by the sudden lockdown is the terrible condition of the migrant workers. Faced with this, the BJP state governments, instead of taking measures to ensure rights of the informal workers are taking steps to push more formal sector workers into what will basically become another informal sector. The hard won right to eight hour working day is being trampled with impunity. Whatever little protection formal workers enjoyed from workplace risks and hazards has been withdrawn with the relaxation of inspection regulations. The right to association of formal workers has been curtailed.

 

The Modi government is also using the fiscal distress that the state governments are facing, on account of the relief measures they have to undertake, to force them to adopt the BJP reform agenda. As part of Atmanirbhar Bharat schemes it was announced that:

 

  • States can additionally borrow, unconditionally, up to 0.5 % of their SGDP
  • They can, further, borrow an additional 1.5 % of SGDP only subject to fulfillment of the following conditions
  • One nation one ration card scheme
  • Ease business restrictions at district level
  • Liberalization of power distribution
  • Revenue generation by local bodies

 

Apart from the fact that this is a cynical application of moneylender’s power, this also makes a mockery of the federal structure. Such conditions will certainly deter the states from utilising the package. The very idea that at a time of acute economic distress, state governments can be persuaded to spend more by additional loans is downright foolish. A family on the verge of starvation may borrow money if offered, fully knowing that it is incapable of repayment, but a state government is certainly unlikely to saddle itself with more debts.

 

In the agricultural sector, in the guise of helping the farmers by abolishing the mandi system, the GOI is trying to extend contract farming

 

The mandi system has come in for a lot of justified criticism. Under this system, farmers are prevented from selling their produce directly, but must take it to the mandis where it is auctioned off under the supervision of an agent of the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee. The ostensible reason for preventing direct sale was to prevent exercise of coercive power by politically and economically powerful traders on small sellers. But the idea, like the licensing system, was perverted. The auction is a sham and commodities are procured by big traders at throwaway prices with the collusion of APMC representative. Often agents buy off the products from the producers at source and bring it to the mandis. Further, the wholesalers operate within designated areas giving them the privilege of monopoly (monopsony for the economics literate!) within their designated area. The whole system is weighted against the small producer, who frequently receives less than the minimum support price (MSP).

 

This system, however, has been modified in favour of farmers by various states. WB, for instance, has done away with designated areas and allows competition among buyers.

 

  • The Modi government has proposed termination of the mandi system; permitting producers to sell anywhere within the country (one country one market); amending the Essential Commodity Act to remove restrictions on stockholding and trading in agricultural commodities. They are touting these measures as beneficial to farmers as the mandi system will cease to operate.
  • Removal of restrictions on stockholding and trading is actually designed to benefit the large contractual supply chains run by big houses. The provision allowing farmers to sell their wares anywhere in India is eyewash. Will the small farmer in Bengal sell watermelons in Gujarat? It is meant for the big houses that can now spread the net of contract farming.

 

The BJP government has also used the opportunity to kick-start their election propaganda by announcing schemes within the Atmanirbhar Bharat drama that are either deceptive or are very minor in impact, though announced with a lot of fanfare.

 

The schemes relating to EPF and TDS/TCS were mostly funded with others’ money.

 

  • Reduction in unfunded EPF contributions of a certain category of employers and employees by 2 %. Suppose an employee in this category was paying Rs 1200 monthly into the EPF. The employer was also paying the same amount. Now both the employer and employee will be paying Rs 1000 for the next 3 months. Obviously the take home pay of employee and profit of employer will rise by Rs 200, each. But the burden will be borne entirely by the employee whose retirement benefit will be reduced by the compounded sum of these deductions. This has been shown as a fiscal benefit.

 

  • 25 % reduction in TDS/TCS payments up to March 2021. But there is no tax rate reduction! So the tax payer will ultimately have to shell out the amount at the time of submission of returns.

 

The pronouncements relating to MNREGA, health infrastructure and distance wireless education appear to be inconsequential and probably intended for media mileage

 

An additional 40,000 cr. allocation under MNREGA was announced. This is welcome but certain facts need to be recollected. This year the budget allocation had been lowered to 60,000 cr from 61,000 cr. Thus the total allocation, after this grand addition, now stands at 1 lakh crore.

 

Prior to the presentation of the 2018 budget, NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, a country-wide coalition of organisations and individuals, had submitted a memorandum to the Union finance ministry stating that there should be an annual allocation in the range of Rs 80,000 crore to be able to minimally function as per its legal provisions. Obviously two years later the figure would be substantially higher. In December 2017, a study conducted by Rajendran Narayanan from the Azim Premji University, Bangalore, in collaboration with two independent researchers, had pointed out that 80% of the funds allocated under the scheme was utilised in just four months, leaving merely 20% for the rest of the year.

 

It was announced that public expenditure on health will be increased. All the districts will have infectious disease hospital blocks. This apart, public health labs will be set up at block levels.

 

These are welcome measures but the insincerity is clear as there is no budgetary allocation. One must also recall that this would involve considerable change of the Modi government policy because for the last two years the percentage of total expenditure devoted to health remained static at 3.5% according to Economic Survey, 2020.

 

The government announced plans for expanding teaching without classrooms: podcasts, community radio, even special content for hearing and visually impaired. There is no allocation, indicating this is another publicity gimmick. The unfeasibility of this measure is obvious if one considers the figures for electricity availability, as this is essential for all these schemes. The government’s Saubhagya scheme to provide electricity to households shows that almost 99.9% of homes India have a power connection. Mission Antyodaya, a nationwide survey of villages conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017-’18, showed that 16% of India’s households received one to eight hours of electricity daily, 33% received 9-12 hours, and only 47% received more than 12 hours a day. How would these podcasts and broadcasts cater to students in rural areas when electricity is available for short duration and different times?

 

There is also a worry that the crisis may be used to nefariously start the process of elimination of classroom teaching, which can breed a critical mind that does not adapt to the concept of man as human capital.

 

Conclusion

The measures taken for containment of the pandemic were definitely not the result of any conspiracy by the cronies of the government and have been frequently tugged in different directions resulting in ad hoc and uncoordinated changes in lockdown policies.  However, the relief measures were planned in accordance with the guiding principles of the Modi government. The results have been horrific for the poor and marginalised and will continue to be so for quite a long time for reasons we have argued. It doesn’t make sense to draw up possible counter strategies. The ruling economic philosophy will not countenance any major changes in areas that matter in pandemic situations.

 

It is all very well to point out that Japan and Germany, countries that are pursuing neoliberal policies like India, have 13.4 and 8.3 hospital beds, respectively, per 10, 000 population while we have only 0.7. One must remember the specific histories. Given our late start down the capitalist growth alley and our long colonial past we had a handicapped public health system when neoliberalism overwhelmed us. Neoliberal government is much like a shopkeeper. It cannot spare a thought for sectors like health and education that merit special attention because they produce more benefits for the society beyond what it gives to the direct beneficiaries. Take an example. Suppose a vaccine for Covid 19 is developed but is high-priced. Say only 5 % of the population can afford it. The vaccine would fail to serve even the needs of the 5 %. First, it would fail to bring the economy back on track as the workers would not be able to afford the vaccine and so would still be susceptible. Secondly, if a sizeable segment (most say about 80%) of the population is not immunised, the virus would continue to be active and it is quite possible that the vaccinated would, sometime in the future, will be re-infected. The ideal solution would be, then for the government to fund vaccine. But this would violate the shop keeping methods of reckoning that neoliberal governments have. The classic case is that of Greece. The American Journal of Public Health in its January 2013 issue discussed the consequences of stringent neoliberal reforms forced by the IMF on Greece following its financial crisis of 2009 and consequent borrowing. It reported that by 2013 health care expenditure had been halved. ‘The IMF has implemented a plan that aims to remove 25% of doctors, as well as 50% of administrative staff, from the Greek health care system’. The journal further reported that ‘With health care restructuring, Greece’s public health has suffered. The country was declared malaria-free in 1974, yet it reported 40 cases of Plasmodium Vivax infection in persons without a travel history to a malaria-endemic country between May and December 2011. During the first seven months of 2011, there was a tenfold increase in newly diagnosed HIV-1 infections among injecting drug users.’ It is obvious that neoliberal economic philosophy will not permit any expansion of the public healthcare system. That is why the Atmanirbhar Bharat announcements of public healthcare expansion do not mention any fiscal allocation.

 

New and imaginative forms of public resistance are necessary to force substantive policy changes even within the system. Just as new modes of governance and economic exploitation open up, new possibilities of resistance also emerge. Out of this distress, solidarity networking has been initiated in places that may go some way towards mobilisations beyond the traditional conception of the working class. This is definitely necessary for India with its vast informally engaged population. Some commentators have remarked on the potential of resistance by migrants that the crisis has revealed. In fact some see the long march back home, defying the states’ repressive machinery, overcoming the loss of comrades with whom they had started the journey, in itself a massive protest. There is a possibility that a large segment of these migrants will not make the return journey, at least in the near future. This would be a passive resistance against some forms of capital like that invested in the construction sector. Those who dream of a different society where such inequity will not prevail will have to think of constructive possibilities of rural employment of the migrants. This could lead to new forms of solidarity and resistance. The idea of construction of the local or samaj in the sense of Tagore, Gandhi and, more immediately, Sankar Guha Neogi must be mobilised to counter the BJP’s empty ‘vocal for local’ slogan. As the experience of Sankar Guha Neogi has shown, such meaningful construction would invite resistance from the powerful. So such nirman would need to be defended with sangharsh.  The need for sangharsh is demonstrated by the rethink that was initiated by the government of Tamil Nadu about allowing reverse migration from their state under pressure from construction barons. A truly rural centric local economy has potential for taking the country along a different socio-economic trajectory that would also be more resilient in a pandemic situation like the current one. A rural economy where small manufacture and agriculture are integrated in production cells spanning perhaps a few blocks would perhaps be more suitable.

 

The pandemic has opened the possibility of mobilising the urban segments of population, too, through the demand for public health services for all because the inability or unwillingness of private facilities to respond to any widespread medical crisis has been comprehensibly exposed.  There is potential but it is difficult to assess whether the wounds that the measures to contain the pandemic have inflicted on the poor will elicit a reaction that the system cannot contain without fundamental changes or whether the system will lapse into a lower level equilibrium slumber.

 

The author is a retired teacher. He taught at Ashutosh College (Kolkata) and at Visva-Bharati University.

 

Also read: The Ideas of ‘Security’ of the Population and ‘War’ against Covid 19

 

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