New Delhi: The deadly combination of lockdown and COVID-19 has made for a terrible combination for citizens. Even worse, this handling of the twin crises-lockdown and COVID and how it has shown the apathy of the state.
In an interview with The Wire, Director of the Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, Yamini Aiyar talked about this and other measures the government could take. Here is an abridged transcript of their conversation.
The conversation was based on Yamini’s article in Hindustan Times which said, “An urgent and immediate task should have been to ensure that everyone be safe.”
Karan Thapar: Did government make a successful attempt in tackling COVID-19 and its effects?
Yamini: They are several points to ensuring that happens: Firstly, basic minimum rights of all Indians weren’t taken care of and. Moreover, the packages announced by the Finance minister were limited. There was no proper planning or consideration given to migrant labourers beforehand. There are dropping income flows or no income at all.
Karan Thapar: “Survey put out by stranded workers network in collaboration with Azim Premji University says that 89% of workers haven’t received wages during the lockdown and 70 percent haven’t received cooked food which basically says that no help was given to people.
Yamini: Here there are two issues which needs to be understood that is the size of package (1.75 lakh crore) and implementation of the package. The new additional sum was half of what was initially sent out. It is just expenditure repurposing (adding marginal amounts).
In terms of implementation, there was more focus laid on governmental schemes rather than everyone being provided with food.
Karan Thapar: The Center of Monitoring Indian Economy says that 114 million people lost their jobs. Yet Finance Minister has remained idle. Is that the right reaction to the given data?
Yamini: When we began moving the starting point of policy making was not exactly about the measures to ensure lives and livelihoods. But starting point was more so about how bad our health system was and how lockdown was basically the blunt go to option right away. This would impact mostly the lower class people.
State governments were better in putting some packages for relief measures compared to that of the center. We’ve always been callous about an equitable health care system and distribution system.
Thapar: We are more than callous because we have been invisible and apathetic to our workers pre and post pandemic. This has never been more apparent. How do we get food to them? How do we restore choice, agency, and dignity?
Yamini: People must be provided with basic food and also money to those who are in need through direct methods rather than schemes which are mired in red tapes.
Enhance social security income measures. Not through the Jan Dhan which has shown to be ineffective to them. Physically go out and put it out reaching the needy directly.
We have robust municipality and Gram Panchayat systems and in some places we have banking correspondents who can do the needful.
Thapar: So universalize food distribution system and get a better cash distribution? Is that what you meant?
Yamini: Yes, in the short term. But in the medium term we need work toward a portable system where access can be gained from anywhere in the system.
The interstate coordination will be key to this. And center has to facilitate this to make this better.
Thapar: The central government seems to be idle about the problems which are becoming worse each day.
Yamini: Clearly, the government is approaching this problem with a problematic mindset mired in red tape and inertia.
Thapar: How does one open up the economy as that also depends on getting migrant workers back? Because some workers want to wait it out unless they are safety measures for them to return. There must be trust building measures put in place that the government will look out for them.
Yamini: We shouldn’t do what has already been done. You won’t trust build trust by coercing people into choice. Ensure proper housing all those who want to go back to their native places must be sent and those who wish to continue living in the same place must be given basic facilities.
Thapar: What are some trust building measures that you have in mind?
Yamini: Construction workers boards and welfare boards, which are means by which cash is sent, need to become more robust. Remove paperwork and actively build registration processes. Grievance redressal mechanisms need to be put into place.
Thapar: Are any of the ideas you gave appear possible as the Indian state has been struggling to do this for decades?
Yamini: TheIndian state is good when it wants to be good. “We just have to have the will.”
Thapar: In the Hindustan Times article, you say cooperative federalism is necessary. Is this concept materializing on the ground?
Yamini: Nope, because this institutionalized interface isn’t happening between center and state. No confidence building measures and not changes from the RBI.
Thapar: Do we have to ‘increase state’ capacity to ask for Gross Domestic Product?
Yamini: Who knows what people in Raisina Hill are thinking about?
The National Development Council, and the Interstate Council are among spaces where center and states can meet repeatedly and resolve their issues .
Thapar: Can’t have a democracy in which a significant portion of democracy has been left to fend for itself. Is this a cause for worry for India’s democratic setup?
Yamini: Yes, this attitude we are demonstrating towards out people will come back to haunt us.
Thapar: How long can Indian democracy tolerate this bad governance?
Yamini: The only silver lining here is that invisible people who have built our cities are now visible.