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Editorial: Are We Doing the Right Thing?

Port Wings, 01 April 2020:

 In a public address to the country on March 24, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown, calling upon Indians to stay indoors, asserting that social distancing is the only way to stop the coronavirus.

 “India will have to pay a very high price if social distancing is not adhered to,” said Modi. But, although limiting human-to-human interactions is the only way to control the spread of the coronavirus, public health experts say social distancing is not an option for the hundreds of millions in India’s unorganized sector.

Tactics being employed in other countries are just aren’t possible here. India’s informal sector is the backbone of its economy. According to the Economic Survey of 2018–19, almost 93 percent of the country’s total workforce—an estimated 437 million people—is informal. This includes agricultural, construction, manufacturing, sanitation, and domestic workers.

Meanwhile, lakhs of trucks are stranded on state borders. Supply chains for the most essential items have been disrupted, including medicines, milk, groceries, food and newspaper deliveries.

Nobody in the prime minister’s office seems to be aware of any such thing as crop harvesting, or the Rabi season, as farmers wonder how they’ll do it amid this national curfew. Only Modi can manage to be so clever as to disrupt the country’s medical supply chain while fighting a pandemic.

As per the government think tank Niti Aayog’s estimates, about 85% of India’s workforce is employed in the informal sector. They could be worst affected.

Since the lockdown has been put in place, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has taken a slew of measures to ease the burden of the citizens, and to make sure no one is left behind in India’s corona fight.

After first easing tax deadlines and business regulations, she also announced a Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package for poor.

The opportunity will not be fully realised if the government does not unshackle domestic enterprises and harness their contribution to investment and employment generation as well.

India has two of the largest social security schemes in the world, and yet a majority of the workers live without basic protections like proper safety gear and medical facilities.

These are workers who need their daily wages to sustain their families and to afford food and nutrition. They work in crowded markets and travel by public transport. It is extremely difficult for them to adopt the social distancing approach.

Workers in the informal sector have indefinite working hours, no paid sick leaves, and no social security benefits. Laws and schemes exist, but they have failed to reach over 90 percent of the beneficiaries.

Although the government is advising people not to venture out, sanitation workers are required to work under subhuman conditions without any medical protection. The COVID-19 epidemic can be fatal for them.

The economic disruption that has resulted from the protective measures we are taking is enormous, and it will have its own set of devastating consequences, including lives ruined in other ways, if not by a respiratory disease.

We need to know how the people who are laid off from their jobs are getting food, and if they are still willing to access health care when the financial cost of doing so might be very uncertain.

We are all engaged in an enormous, high-stakes nationwide experiment right now, and we need all of this data to answer the question: Are we doing the right thing?

The economy isn’t on Modi’s radar either. He won a national election despite disastrous economic policies that gave us a 45 year-high unemployment rate. Why should he worry about the economy?

If we survive the pandemic, we won’t survive the impending economic collapse.

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