Social Distancing is for the Privileged: Is Planning Enough?

Empty Brigade Road in Bengaluru
Empty Brigade Road in Bengaluru. Image credit: PTI

The government of Narendra Modi has finally announced an amount of $22 billion for the country’s poor to help combat the economic effects of COVID-19 outbreak in late March, despite India having its first case in January. While something is better than nothing, amidst the constantly increasing numbers of reported victims, such measures might be considered dangerously late. Moreover, as of March 24, the Economic Task Force that Modi promised to set-up under Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman for tackling COVID-19 crisis at hand is yet to be officially launched. By the last count, there are 1251 reported cases in India with 32 deaths in total. The state governments within the country, on the other hand, are rapidly announcing relief money and big plans. While their efforts are truly commendable, the issues of implementation and fair distribution processes in a country as vast as India remains quite vague. This is a time for the country to come together, states and central government alike. Continued cleavages between the Centre and the states in their efforts can amount to nothing but more casualties.

While the overall devastation the global pandemic has been causing is being reported, different countries have different challenges to face; and India as a developing country needs to take care of its unorganized sector more efficiently than ever before. The country has approximately 82% of its population involved in the unorganized sector according to the International Labour Union report of 2016. Thus, the majority of these people across the country are not just jobless now but are destined to starve if they miss work for even a day. Instituting police personnel to beat people who leave their houses is inherently counterproductive with regard to the people who have no choice but to venture out every day to put food on the table. While the privileged might applaud such an approach, to the vast majority of the country, such steps are merely adding insult to injury.

Along these lines, on the 25 of March, The Economic Times published a piece titled ‘Rajasthan migrant workers in Gujarat leave for homes on foot after lockdown.’ This article talked about how there was no point for such workers in staying on at their places of work ‘without any income.’ These migrant workers are not the only ones suffering. Within urban landscapes, there are domestic workers, cobblers, weavers, tea stall owners, bus conductors, drivers and small businessmen, who don’t have bank accounts to fall back on, are the worst affected. Within the rural stratum, handloom workers, weavers and artisans again have no economic safety nets to rely on, and in the case of a lockdown, are destined to significant hardship.

In terms of the steps being taken by the state governments, it cannot be said that they aren’t doing much. A lawyer has filed a petition to the state government of Goa to provide essentials to the people below the poverty line. The Chief Minister of New Delhi along with the Bihar CM Nitish Kumar have promised free meals for all the people who are needy and in economic distress. Kerala on the other hand, very remarkably allotted 20,000 crores of rupees as a relief package. This package includes loans alongside pensions for the elderly. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee has also announced that the state government is creating a Rs 200-crore fund to deal with the impact of Covid-19. Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh are not far behind either.

However, with all these waivers and relief funds being announced, the chief question surrounds the implementation and the management of these funds. At the time of such a global pandemic where social gathering remains the chief problem, the distribution process becomes increasingly complicated. The big problem lies not in the schemes that the governments are promising but in not ensuring the proper implementation of these schemes. So, will the schemes declared by the state governments take the same route of delay? Schemes are not enough. The need of the hour is for the central government and the state governments is to ensure a fair distribution of commodities and resources while averting assemblage as much as possible. The unorganized sector is suffering the most. This sector is the sector of the underprivileged, the jobless and the underpaid who hardly have a voice and are still forced to be concerned primarily for their livelihood, rather than their lives. 

Even if the governments have announced relief packages and allotted money for ‘relieving the daily distress of these people’, what will the implementation process look like? The problem with India has never been about the planning and the schemes, it has largely been about the implementation of the schemes planned. Is a door-to-door scheme feasible in times of such a crisis where the global pandemic is dangerous primarily because of its contagious nature? These are questions which we should be asking.

With the center is in disarray and states having to take independent initiatives, India looks imminently incapable of presenting a united front to combat the COVID-19 crisis. This inability to establish state-center cooperation in implementing schemes might come back to haunt India, as the crisis escalates in the coming months.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.