A grave injustice to which the intelligentsia and great Indian middle class are helpless spectators, if not complicit, is spreading across the country in the wake of the novel Coronavirus, aka Covid-19 pandemic. The impact on the livelihoods of an estimated 100 million migrant labour citizens has been the harshest ever since the stringent nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 25 for six weeks to prevent the spread of the pandemic, for which an antidote has not yet been discovered. If we assume that each migrant worker obliged to seek low-wage employment far from home — because leaders of newly independent India adopted a nihilistic economic development model and persisted with it for over four decades — has four dependents, over 400 million of India’s 1.3 billion people are in danger of death by malnutrition and associated maladies, including mental derangement and suicide.
Stranded migrant labour, it’s pertinent to record, were given a mere four hours’ notice before the national lockdown was imposed to prevent transmission of the Covid-19 contagion.
Grounded at their work sites, unable to get back to their village homes due to suspension of public transport, millions of them started out on foot to reach homes hundreds of miles away. Such is the faith of the country’s poorest and weakest in government assurances pertaining to their welfare.
To be sure, the Centre and states have taken some initiatives to provide accommodation and food to stranded migrant workers. The Union government’s first relief package of Rs.1.7 lakh crore and second package of Rs.1 lakh crore for banks and finance companies aggregates a mere 1.18 percent of GDP. On the other hand the US, France, UK and several other countries have allocated near 10-15 percent of GDP to compensate their citizens for loss of livelihoods.
It’s not as though India, now a middle income economy, lacks the resources to provide meaningful relief to the vulnerable majority devastated by the Covid virus. Your editor has been repeatedly advising the Central government to borrow a sum of Rs.8 lakh crore (3.52 percent of GDP) from the RBI and immediately deposit Rs.4,444 per month by way of direct benefit transfers into the bank accounts of the country’s 150 million poorest households, for the next 12 months. This sum can be returned by the Union government to RBI by raising an additional Rs.8 lakh crore in the Union budget 2021-22. However it has not received any support.
Your editor’s guess is this proposal has not gained traction because it envisages additional (modest) taxation of the middle class by way of slashing non-merit subsidies, reducing establishment and defence expenditure, fire sale of public sector enterprises and a mere Rs.1,000 modest flat tax on all income tax assesses. Clearly this package is unacceptable to the upper middle class which runs the country and has cornered all the gains accruing from independence from foreign rule seven decades ago.
The Covid 19 crisis offers India’s cruel middle and upper classes which include the intelligentsia and academy, an opportunity to atone for mistakes of the past. They can — and should — be willing to bear some pain for the greater good of the least of these our brethren.