No time for floral symbolism: Govt should focus on economic revival and aiding migrant workers as fiscal crisis trails COVID-19 pandemic

The fiscal and monetary approach thus far has been ad-hoc and episodic.

Madhavan Narayanan May 04, 2020 14:12:54 IST
No time for floral symbolism: Govt should focus on economic revival and aiding migrant workers as fiscal crisis trails COVID-19 pandemic

In a somewhat forgotten slice of Indian history, when India was having an uneasy relationship with Sri Lanka over the plight of the island's minority Tamils torn between refugee status on the one hand and bloody separatism on the other, Indian Air Force planes flew over the Jaffna peninsula in 1987 to drop food and medicine supplies in what came to be known as Operation Poomalai (Garland).

The question on one's lips after IAF helicopters showered flower petals on hospitals across the country in cheer up act for doctors and health workers fighting the COVID-19 virus is: Could our armed forces show some Jaffna-style love for millions of jobless, hapless, clueless migrant workers walking the highways in the summer sun?

No time for floral symbolism Govt should focus on economic revival and aiding migrant workers as fiscal crisis trails COVID19 pandemic

Representational image. AP

It is fine to cheer health workers, fashionably described as Corona Warriors.

But one invites the tag of a cynic, spoilsport or worse, a political conspirator when a government is criticised for symbolic acts of support for officials and others helping millions in lockdown to avoid a dreaded pandemic. But the time has come to say: "Enough of symbolism, please. Put your money where your mouth is."

You can argue that it doesn't cost much to shower flowers on hospitals.

Politics, agreed, is about symbolism that includes clanging pots, lit candles, flags and displayed acts of solidarity and communion.

Governance is not.

The government must wake up to the fact that the economic measures it has unveiled thus far to help face the shocks of a lockdown in its sixth week do little to tackle the woe that seems as daunting as the pandemic in question: a contagious mood of uncertainty that has gripped employees and employers alike.

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Early signs of a fiscal crisis are already seen. State governments including that of prosperous Punjab and the most populous Uttar Pradesh are paying salaries to hordes of government workers even as revenues run short.

While the railways have begun running "Shramik Special" trains to help take struggling migrant workers back home to their villages, there is quibbling on who will foot the bill for this.

The railways are trying to bill the state governments which are unlikely to be amused. As it is, agriculture is not taxed in India, and alcohol, the favourite whipping boy, is not flowing thanks to the lockdown. States are thus short of money. Add to this the looming fact that health, like alcohol and the politically sensitive agriculture, is a state subject under the Constitution, and you see an unpleasant mix of increased expenditure and shrinking revenues.

Migrant workers have been reduced to refugee status in their own country. Surely a government that has for decades championed the cause of Kashmiri Pandits in an exodus can notice the barefoot sloggers from Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar?

In Mumbai, doctors are said to be charging a bomb to draft all-clear medical certificates for workers so that they can board trains after being perceived free of COVID-19 symptoms.

Could we not have used the armed forces' considerable transport muscle to help migrant workers? The Congress party is trying to fish in troubled waters by offering to foot their travel bill. In terms of both politics and governance, the Narendra Modi government needs to think anew to save its face.

The second extension of a nationwide lockdown has already drawn flak though it is understandable that the government focuses more on saving lives before coming to livelihoods. But a clear plan should have been announced by now because uncertainty takes a toll on economic behaviour.

At the very least, some kind of a blanket guarantee scheme should be announced to ensure cash flows do not stop.

Consider the fact that hospitals were severely short of personal protection equipment (PPE) and other preventive supplies as they got into their fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the shortage has eased, there are doubts about the quality of testing kits. The possibility of increased expenditure on medical supplies looks real as the number of cases mounts.

The government can take heart from the fact that its overall lockdown strategy has thus far bettered the US or the UK, and that "jaan" (life) rightly comes before "jahan" (world) in a list of priorities.

It can also be thankful that civil servants have played a stellar role in administrative measures to control the spread of the pandemic. However, there is no substitute for a meaningful fiscal strategy.

True, the world as a whole is loosening state purses to help economies find their feet after COVID-19. It is also true that a roadmap for credible stabilisation and revival (in that order) is likely to be accepted as legitimate by global investors and watchdogs than conventional fiscal belt-tightening. But where exactly is the roadmap? The fiscal and monetary approach thus far has been ad-hoc and episodic.

We need to look beyond flowers and think beyond photo opportunities. It is time to wake up and smell the coffee. Not just flowers.

The writer is a senior journalist and commentator. He tweets as @madversity.

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