Updated: Jun 25, 2020
Forced to stay at home for over a month, we can’t help but feel incarcerated. However, subconsciously, we all feel guarded against the terrors of Covid-19, because of these very bars that don’t allow us to go into the free world, the virus that has devastated even the most developed of nations. But how effective is an extension of the nationwide lockdown for India?
By now, most of us have probably heard the phrase “flatten the curve”; this refers to nothing more than spreading out the number of coronavirus patients over a span of time. Medical equipment is limited and if too many people were to get sick at once, hospitals will face a difficult decision as to who to cure and who to leave for probable death. Such a case has already been observed in Italy, where old people were rejected over younger ones given their lower chance of survival. India has 8 doctors and 7 beds per 10,000 people as compared to a more populous China which has 18 doctors and 42 hospital beds per 10,000 (Economist). Seeing these dire conditions, flattening the curve is necessary for India, if it’s not flattened, the ratio of people dying due to the virus will increase drastically.
The next question that arises is, how would we go about it? Lockdown, a procedure most countries have adopted, is extremely effective in decreasing the number of new Covid-19 patients per day which in turn flattens the curve. However, it comes at a significant opportunity cost. India has the highest number of ‘extremely poor’ people as defined by the World Bank at roughly 50 million. These people, and more, were daily wage workers who are now unemployed and are likely out of savings. The government has, however, released a relief fund of Rs. 1.7 lakh crores ($22 billion) which includes the provision of 5kgs of wheat/rice and 1kg of pulses per month for 3 months to each household and subsidising the same in stores. Additionally, MGNREGA wages are being increased to Rs. 202 from Rs. 182. Rs. 31 crores is also being given to the construction workers’ welfare fund. There have also been state-wise relief packages, for example, UP giving Rs. 1000 to 3.83 million daily wage earners, Punjab giving Rs. 3000 to each registered construction worker, New Delhi giving Rs. 5000 to each auto, taxi, and e-rickshaw driver in the city and Rs. 5000 each to 35,000 construction workers. These are all great steps taken towards helping the poor dealing with unemployment.
These numbers, however, only look good on paper, if we delve deeper, we realise how far off this fund is from really relieving any one of those 50 million people in extreme poverty. An additional Rs. 20 from increased MGNREGS will not significantly improve situations for a household. We have roughly 8.5 million construction workers in the country, even if the Rs. 31 crores of the added construction workers’ welfare fund is split equally, each person only gets an additional Rs. 36.5. In the case of the state funds, there are still many households that aren’t covered: only 35,000 construction workers have been given aid out of the 1.63 crores we have in New Delhi and not all states are as generous as UP and Punjab.
As for the benefits of the pulses and wheat, we have to take the example of a typical household’s consumption behavior to see the level of benefit. If we look at a household of 4 that consumes food for survival, above anything else, we would have the following estimate. A typical Indian household would consume 10 kgs of wheat in a month as its sole source of carbohydrates with no rice (on a very modest side). 1kg of pulses, if eaten twice a day will last roughly 5 days (again modest). This means that a household needs 10 kgs of wheat and 6 kgs of pulses to survive per month. The National relief fund provides 5 kgs of wheat and 1 kg of pulses. A packet of the cheapest pulses costs roughly Rs. 90, and the cheapest wheat costs Rs. 170 for 5 kgs at retail. I am currently leaving out fair price wheat and grains the poor can get at less than Rs. 4/kg (National Food Security Act, 2013), since purchasing grains at these rates is only possible from fair price stores, and due to the lockdown, most of these stores are no longer accessible to many that need them especially due to police reinforcements. Additionally, to be eligible for these subsidized grains, the purchaser needs to have an income of up to Rs. 15,000 per year and if your income is less than Rs. 10,000, you can purchase 35 kgs of grains per month, otherwise, the limit is 5 kg. Furthermore, many people don’t have ration cards as they may not have the documents required such as proof of address, birth certificate, or in some cases, even proof of identity. As of 8th July 2019, 23.2 crore ration cards have been issued nationwide which include holders below the poverty line and above. The total population below the poverty line in India is ~297 million, even if all the ration card holders were BPL, there would still be ~22% of that population that doesn’t have ration cards and thus is unable to avail the grants given by the government. Furthermore, the government is having problems distributing its promises due to labor and truck availability to the ones that do pass all the requirements listed above: for example, only 15% of the intended households have received their 1kg of pulses so far (The Hindu).
Therefore, many mere surviving households will need to spend a whopping Rs. 382 per month over and above what it's given in relief purely for meals. This doesn’t even include the costs of drinking water, electricity, or other necessary domestic requirements. It may not seem like a large sum of money to us, but for a daily wage worker, it’s an excruciating amount.
Even a mammoth relief of $22.2 billion is falling extremely short of what the country requires, illustrating that a lockdown isn’t sustainable. India had 564 confirmed cases when the lockdown was imposed, and for quite a few days after, cases only rose by less than 100 per day, implying that the medical staff and equipment were underemployed, but the poor were still unable to earn an income. “We have run out of food and neither have money nor ration now. There are 15 of us living confined within three rooms. We have been surviving on the charity of others and cooking whatever the neighbors donate to us. It’s hopeless,” 27-year-old Das, from Jharkhand, told The Diplomat (The Diplomat).
In slum areas, the matters are inconceivable. Dharavi for example, Asia’s largest slum, has a staggering population density of over 270,000 people living per square kilometer (World Economic Forum). With a lack of sanitation and social distancing being impractical, the lockdown doesn’t seem logical. Along with proud providers of the family now being left vulnerable and completely at the mercy of their neighbors, a breaking point is within reach. A further increase in lockdown will result in acts of desperation as we’ve already encountered. After our Prime Minister declared an extension of the lockdown, thousands of people gathered en masse at Mumbai’s Bandra railway station, and Delhi’s Anand Vihar bus station in protest and desperate to return to their villages. They were lathi-charged and dispersed. These gatherings are antithetical to the very purpose of the lockdown. Continued suppression and leaving a sentiment of powerlessness during desperate times can lead to mass protests and an uprising of violence in the country.
Ideally, after the lockdown initiated, a series of substantially increased testing and backtracing the virus could have allowed the country to get rid of it, or at least minimise the number of new cases per day. Such a method was extremely effective in South Korea and saw immaculate results. Unfortunately, our government was slow to react with only 47,951 tests conducted for the virus by 31st March (BloombergQuint). Seeing that India may become a coronavirus hotspot, WHO had donated 1 million testing kits to India prior to that date, so the government wasn’t in short supply either (The Economist). India has only recently surpassed 500,000 tests, which is not ideal, to say the least. A recent scam of corruption has also risen, where a firm supplying the test kit to the government (ICMR) was earning a 145% profit, showing a grave misallocation of resources by our government. Additionally, there have been no national-level attempts from the government for contact tracing other than developing and endorsing an app called ‘Aarogya Setu’, which only allows the people that have downloaded the app to see who could possibly be infected and whether they’ve come in contact with them. Seeing that cases have risen past 24,000 as of 26th April, completely eradicating the virus seems to become less and less of a possibility with current measures.
Each day in lockdown for us, is another day each one of those 50 million people have to rely on the altruism of their neighbors and relatives. With increased tensions amongst the public, a further extension of the lockdown could quite possibly lead to mass hysteria and violence not to mention the increased long-run economic repercussions that’ll follow. There is no substantial improvement regarding the virus with 1700+ new cases every day. The future too, with current trajectories, seems bleak. In such a situation, the ideal plan of action would be to end the nationwide lockdown on May 3rd with strict implementation of social distancing and hygiene. Alternatively, individual states with extremely high cases of the virus, like Maharashtra and Delhi can remain under lockdown and hopefully, resources allocated to the national level will be more concentrated on these hotspots. Another option could be to divide the state into economic zones and reinstate production in output heavy areas. Certain “red” hotspots should definitely be sealed but the people in green zones need to go to work. If the government doesn’t follow suit, they’re taking a huge chance with the Indian public, and we all know, how.
Authored by Aman Kumar