1. Moving resolutely toward the post-pandemic future
Even as many countries are stumbling, India has seized control of its destiny, is recovering, and making bold plans
- A moment comes, but rarely in history, when a nation seizes control of its destiny; when a new Atmanirbhar era begins and when the people of a nation move forward with confidence. It is fitting that this moment has come during the global novel coronavirus pandemic. Even as the world is reeling from the impact of the pandemic, India is recovering with fresh energy and making bold plans for the future.
- The pandemic began spreading around the world just a few months ago. Yet, it has plunged the global economy into its deepest economic contraction since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Trillions of dollars of economic output have been wiped out, most countries will take years to return to pre-coronavirus levels, and billions of people are confronting a shrunken future.
- India has avoided this fate. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has undertaken a series of decisive, calibrated actions which include: implementing a rapid lockdown to save lives; providing abundant relief to protect livelihoods; and, simultaneously positioning the economy for strong revival through the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ policy package.
- On March 24, 2020, Mr. Modi announced a historic nation-wide lockdown that was eventually lifted on June 1. The national lockdown dramatically dampened the disease’s exponential growth rate and gave the country time to prepare. Without a lockdown, the cases of coronavirus would today be several times higher than now. More importantly, coronavirus fatalities would have been even higher since the case fatality rate has declined dramatically in the past few months.
Lockdown was essential
- A terrible human tragedy was swiftly and decisively averted. During the lockdown, the nation got ready to face the pandemic. Every citizen learned the value of masks and mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing. Hospital beds, intensive care units, ventilators, oxygen cylinders, personal protective equipment kits, and N95 masks were procured in vast quantities and supplied to every district. COVID-19 care and quarantine centres were established in every block. Testing capacity increased from thousands per day to almost a million per day. Testing labs are now available in 80-90% of all districts. Extraordinary medical advances have also happened in the past few months: several drugs have proven to be efficacious, treatment protocols are now widely available, and many vaccine candidates are now in the final stages of testing. The national lockdown has thus saved lakhs of lives.
- Along with lives, livelihoods have also been saved through bold action. Soon after the lockdown was announced, the Prime Minister announced the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana — a massive relief package for the needy. Through this programme, around 80 crore fellow citizens are being provided rations through the Public Distribution System. This has saved them money and put cash in their pockets. Over 20 crore Jan Dhan women account holders have received ₹30,654 crore directly into their bank accounts. Around 2.3 crore construction workers have got ₹4,313 crore, while 2.8 crore beneficiaries in the National Social Assistance Programme have received ₹2,815 crore.
- The rural economy, which supports 60-70% of India’s population and accounts for 46% of GDP, is surging. The excellent rabi harvest has resulted in over ₹75,000 crore in farmer payments by the government. Almost 10 crore farmers have received ₹40,000 crore as income support through the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi. Over 4 crore households are benefiting from the expanded Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act scheme. Thus the rural economy has received over ₹2 lakh crore of cash directly into beneficiary accounts just from the Central government. State governments have run their own relief programmes as well. These massive cash payments have driven rural confidence, with consumer goods, motorcycle, and tractor purchases at or above pre-pandemic levels now.
RBI and policy actions
- Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) and large corporates have also been provided substantial relief through coordinated action between the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the government. Compliance filings and tax payments were extended by several months. Borrowers received a loan moratorium of six months. Moreover, the RBI has cut rates by 115bps and pumped in more than ₹9 lakh crore in liquidity into the financial system; ₹3 lakh crore have been made available as guaranteed collateral-free loans for MSME borrowers. with close to half of that being sanctioned already. The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, Small Industries Development Bank of India, National Housing Bank, and Non-banking financial companies have all been provided refinancing facilities. The RBI has undertaken vast long-term repo operations to bring down the yield curve. As a result of all these policy actions, credit markets have stabilised, credit is available, and spreads have come down to normal levels.
- With the loan moratorium coming to an end on August 31, the RBI has now announced a one-time restructuring scheme to provide relief to stressed sectors. Borrowers will be able to restructure their loans to match their cash flows, thereby protecting their businesses and jobs. The net result of these relief actions has been to prevent widespread business failures and job losses, which would have resulted in permanent damage to the Indian economy.
- After these relief measures were rolled out, the government introduced the Atmanirbhar Bharat revival package. Following the adage that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, the Prime Minister has launched bold policy reforms in agriculture, defence production, electronics manufacturing, coal mining, and the public sector. These reforms position India for the future and generate confidence among business people and investors.
- The agriculture sector has seen the most transformational changes. Unfortunately, the architects of industrial policy transformation in 1991 have chosen to not commend the agricultural policy transformation of 2020. Through a series of ordinances, price controls have largely been removed in agriculture, farmers can now sell their crops to anyone anywhere, and contract farming has been allowed. Kisan credit cards are being provided to all fishermen, dairy farmers, and other agriculturists. An additional ₹1 lakh crore has been earmarked to build rural infrastructure such as storage depots, refrigerated warehouses, and other post-harvest facilities. Animal husbandry has been sanctioned another ₹15,000 crore.
- Defence production is being indigenised with 101 items meant only for domestic production. This will likely generate over ₹4 lakh crore of revenues for domestic defence producers in the next few years. Defence foreign direct investment of 74% is now allowed through the automatic route. Similarly, the government has completely opened up coal mining to the private sector to ensure that imported coal worth over ₹1 lakh crore is replaced with domestic coal. Finally, in yet another historic decision, the government has declared that there will be full disinvestment in all public sector enterprises in non-strategic sectors.
- Production-linked incentives for electronics manufacturing are likely to result in lakhs of crores of smartphone production in India for domestic use and exports. Current projections are that India will soon be among the top smartphone manufacturers globally. In sum, these game-changing reforms have prompted domestic and foreign investors to start pouring in billions of dollars of investments into our economy.
There is confidence
- During these uncertain times, India remains a safe haven. The rupee has strengthened against the dollar, the world’s reserve currency. Opinion surveys consistently show that Prime Minister Modi is the most popular elected leader in the world; in fact, tracking polls show that his popularity has actually gone up during the pandemic demonstrating that the Indian people approve of his handling of the coronavirus crisis. Confidence in the government has also increased. Many countries are stumbling through the pandemic. Meanwhile, India has seized control of its destiny and is marching resolutely toward the post-pandemic future.
2. Differential impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown
The resultant distress in India has exacerbated pre-existing structures of disadvantage based on social identity
- In his book, The Great Leveler, Walter Scheidel, the Austrian economic historian, argues that throughout human history, there have been four types of catastrophic events that have led to greater economic equality: pandemic, war, revolution and state collapse. Currently, the world is going through one of them: a massive COVID-19 pandemic. In Scheidel’s analysis, the decline in inequality is a result of excess mortality that raises the price of labour. While the validity of Scheidel’s argument for the current pandemic can only be assessed after it is over, the pandemic has been described as a leveller more loosely, both because the disease can strike anyone, and also because the resultant lockdowns have led to widespread job losses and economic hardships across the range of the income and occupational distribution.
The marginalised at risk
- Focusing on the looser description of the pandemic as a leveller, preliminary data and early indirect evidence from several parts of the world indicate that the incidence of the disease is not class-neutral: poorer and economically vulnerable populations are more likely to contract the virus as well as to die from it. To the extent, economic class and social identity (e.g. race, ethnicity or caste) overlap, this suggests that socially marginalised groups would be at higher risk of mortality due to COVID-19.
- The risks extend beyond mortality as the economic consequences of the current pandemic are likely to be most concentrated among the low wage earners, and less educated workers, segments of the labour force where racial and ethnic minorities are over-represented. Early evidence from the United Kingdom and the United States reveals that racial and ethnic minorities are indeed the ones most likely at the risk of unemployment.
- What does the evidence from India reveal? Disaggregated data on COVID-19 incidence and mortality are not available for India. Thus, we cannot comment on whether certain caste groups are more vulnerable to the virus than others.
The Indian shutdown
- A key element of the pandemic control strategy everywhere has been to shut down economic and social activity, and to impose social distancing with varying degrees of strictness. India’s lockdown, imposed in the last week of March 2020, was among the most stringent. The first month of the severe lockdown, April 2020, witnessed a sharp rise in unemployment.
- Was this sudden unemployment caste-neutral, despite the fact that it was caste-blind?
- We examine shifts in employment and unemployment rates using data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE)’s Consumer Pyramids Household Survey (CPHS) database. It is a longitudinal data set covering 174,405 households (roughly 10,900 households per week, and 43,600 per month). Each household is followed three times per year. We use unit-level data from six waves of CPHS: Wave 14 (May-August 2018), Wave 15 (September-December 2018), Wave 16 (January-April 2019), Wave 17 (May-August 2019), Wave 18 (September-December 2019), and Wave 19 (January-April 2020).
- We find that the proportion of employed upper castes dropped from 39% to 32% between December 2019 and April 2020, a fall of seven percentage points. The corresponding fall for Scheduled Castes (SCs) was from 44% to 24%, i.e. a fall of 20 percentage points, almost three times as large. For intermediate castes, Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Tribes (STs) the fall was from 42% to 34%, 40% to 26% and 48% to 33%. Thus, the fall in employment for SCs and STs was far greater in magnitude than that for upper castes.
Education as factor
- The global evidence suggests that job losses associated with COVID-19 are much more concentrated among individuals with low levels of education and those with vulnerable jobs with no tenure or security. We find that individuals with more secure jobs, i.e. not daily wagers, and those with more than 12 years of education, were much less likely to be unemployed in April 2020 than those with less than 12 years of education and with daily wage jobs, relative to their pre-pandemic employment status. Thus, education did turn out to be a protective factor in the first wave of immediate post-lockdown job losses.
- Our earlier work reveals that caste gaps at higher levels of education have either remained static or widened over the last three decades.
- The current pandemic is further likely to exacerbate these educational differences. Data from another nationally representative survey, the India Human Development Survey for 2011-12 (IHDS-II) show that 51% of SC households have adult women who have zero years of education, i.e. are illiterate, and 27% have an illiterate adult male member. These proportions are in stark contrast to Upper Caste (UC) households, where the corresponding proportions are 11% and 24%, respectively. Thus, in the face of current school closures, parents of SC children would be much less equipped to assist their children with any form of home learning, compared to parents of UC children. This would be the case both because of educational differences among parents as well as due to other significant differences in material conditions living.
Issue of technology
- There are many dimensions that reveal continued disparity between caste groups, which would affect the ability of Dalit and Adivasi families to access online education. For example, the proportion of households with access to the Internet is 20% and 10% for UC and SC households, respectively. Only 49% of SCs have bank savings, as compared to 62% of UC households. Thus, differential access to information technology, as well as disparities in the ability to invest in technology will be critical in shaping access to online education, if the pandemic forces schools to close for a substantial period of time.
- Early impacts of the pandemic-induced lockdown indicate that the resultant economic distress is exacerbating pre-existing structures of disadvantage based on social identity, and investments in education and health that close gaps between social groups would be essential to build resilience in the face of future shocks.
3. Kerala readies to host its first dragonfly festival
‘Thumbimahotsavam’ will encourage varied participation, with Pantalu as its official mascot
- The WWF-India Kerala unit has joined hands with the Society for Odonate Studies (SOS) and Thumbipuranam for the first-ever State Dragonfly Festival in Kerala, named Thumbimahotsavam 2020. ‘Pantalu’ is the official mascot forthe festival.
- Several programmes are set to be rolled out in the coming months to reach out to various sections of society. A ‘dragonfly backyard watch’ has been announced to enhance the participation of people and improve their observation skills — it will be a citizen science project in view of COVID-19 restrictions.
- A social media campaign is also on to spread the message around.
- A field guide on the common dragonflies of Kerala, and a children’s dragonfly colouring and activity book are also under development.
- A digital odonate knowledge hub will also be set up under the SOS/Thumbipuranam Facebook page, which will host all available material in the form of scientific papers, posters, videos and stickers on dragonflies. Various competitions will also be organised.
- The festival is expected to culminate with the State dragonfly summit, which is likely to be held in January.
- The events are a part of a national dragonfly festival being organised by the WWF India, Bombay Natural History Society and the Indian Dragonfly Society in association with the National Biodiversity Board, United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Development Programme and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
- Initially, a training of trainers will be organised to so that more people can serve as resource persons for the upcoming events. This will be followed by a series of webinars, commencing from September and targeting the public, especially children and youth.
- Webinars will also be organised for specific target groups such as zoology teachers; district coordinators and members of biodiversity management committees; coordinators of Bhoomithrasena clubs for students; district coordinators and teachers-in-charge of eco-clubs; and Forest Department personnel, mainly Vana Samrakshana Samithy and Eco Development Committee members involved in ecotourism activities.