Aakar Patel | Seven things India must do to save itself from disaster

Columnist  | Aakar Patel

Opinion, Columnists

All parties and the government acknowledge we are in trouble, and more trouble lies ahead

A medic takes a sample of a woman for 'Herd Immunity' study at ICMR, during the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown, in Mumbai, Saturday. PTI Photo

A natural disaster prevented large parts of the population from taking care of itself. Crores of people lost their jobs.

The Centre says over one crore people so far have gone back to their village in trains and buses from the cities they were making a living in and sending money back from. We don’t know how many walked and cycled their way back as there’s no documentation of internal migration in India, a notoriously data-poor nation.

Farmers living off small tracts of land, workers who are wage-dependent and without work, these also number in the crores. Children who need their mid-day meal at school and are not getting it at home are in crores.

There are at least 50 crore Indians who have been hit hard by the events of the past three months and are now at the edge of survival. We are seeing people fight over food and eating the carcasses of dogs.

The role of the state is to try stop the spread of the epidemic: that is the lockdown. But the lockdown’s effects include the destitution of large parts of the population, and for overcoming this the responsibility is on the state.

By that I mean the entire structure of government, but the onus is mostly on the central government. It alone has the resources and the ability to print money. Individual provinces have no power or capacity to raise money beyond a point.

There is no dispute that we are now in a crisis. Because of this we can act on a consensus and don’t have to make it a political issue, rather one that concerns the whole nation.

All parties and the government acknowledge we are in trouble, and more trouble lies ahead. Mumbai’s ICU beds have 99 per cent occupancy and the pandemic is accelerating. We can extrapolate the numbers and see that by the end of June the situation will become unmanageable.

We must act immediately: today is ideal. What specifically is to be done?

A few days ago a group of people circulated a document named Mission Jai Hind. It seeks the following:

1. Bring migrants back home within 10 days safely with dignity and without charging them.

The government must coordinate and arrange for trains and buses to do this. State governments can transport them to their home once they reach the station. They must be fed and housed properly till this is possible, and given local transport to get to the station

2. Easy and free access to all symptomatic persons. Arranging, by using private infrastructure, for free quarantine and ICU beds. One year’s medical and economic cover to all frontline workers in the health sector and their families.

3. Universal access to rations for six months. Ten kg of grain, 1.5 kg of dal, 800 ml of oil, a half kilo of sugar per person. The addition of names on a ration card on demand. Home delivery of the mid-day meal ration equivalent. All schools to run community kitchens.

4. MNREGA guarantee to go from 100 days to 200 with wages paid daily. Urban residents to get 100 days of guaranteed work at Rs 400/day. Appropriate work for senior citizens and disabled.

 5. Compensation for job losses, interest free loans to companies to pay salaries, compensation to farmers for loss of produce or fall in price. Rs 10,000 to hawkers and small shopkeepers to restart.

6. Three months of interest waiver and moratorium on first house loans on request, six months for Mudra Shishu and Kishor loans (to micro units and entrepreneurs) and crop loans on request.

7. These expenses must have the first right over the exchequer before other expenses. That will ensure a focus on prioritisation which is essential today. The Centre must raise resources with urgency and in emergency fashion and share half of what it raised with states.

What is asked for in this list is unexceptionable and nobody has opposed it. It’s the bare minimum people will need to get through the next six months. What comes in 2021 we don’t know but we must give Indians the capacity to be able to reach 2021. We need our society to be in good enough shape also in terms of trust.

In times of great crisis and shortage, the state will quickly lose its capacity. We don’t want that as the rule of law operates through moral force to a large extent, not fear. What happens when one’s children are starving, and one is desperate?

Given the huge numbers of people in distress, we can’t give it more time. On May 28, Congress president Sonia Gandhi asked that Rs 7,500 per month be sent to every family for six months. She also sought an increase in MNREGA days to 200 (the government now guarantees only 100 days of work, and even that is patchy and the payment is made in piecemeal manner because money is not made available by the Centre).

Many of the people behind Mission Jai Hind are eminent and respected, but that is immaterial. It needs endorsement from all of us: I certainly back it. It’s the only document that has been put up I know of that lays out the steps we must quickly take to save ourselves from disaster. And it needs immediate adoption by the state.