The Centre’s decision to postpone the first phase of the 2021 Census, earlier planned to start on April 1, was expected in view of the COVID-19 outbreak that has brought life to a standstill in India and across the world.
The 21-day national lockdown called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is until April 15, but the return of any semblance of normalcy in daily life will take many more weeks, if not months.
EXTENT AND INTENSITY:
India is still struggling to make sense of the extent and intensity of the pandemic and the accompanying and inevitable economic calamity.
What is for certain is that all resources, public and private, will need to be mobilised, first for combating the malady and then for tending society and the economy back to its health and dynamism.
The Census is a massive exercise, which involves mass contact and diversion of resources.
According to the original schedule, the first phase, from April to September, would have included house listing and updating of the National Population Register, and the second phase, in February 2021, would have been population enumeration.
The Centre has done well by putting off the first phase until further orders. State governments can now focus on the pressing task of combating the coronavirus.
The unexpected suspension of the Census operation also opens a fresh window, and an entirely new context, for reconciliation between the Centre and States on the exercise itself.
If the NPR exercise, and the allied questions regarding citizenship rights had turned India into a cauldron of discord, the pandemic forced the collective attention of the country, nay the world, on the interconnectedness of modern life.
Several State governments had made their opposition clear to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, and the additional questions in the NPR pro forma that many fear is a prelude to something more cynical and divisive that is based on some quaint ideas of nationhood.
The Centre clarified that people could choose to not respond to these questions, but never bothered to address the underlying concerns.
The pandemic is a reminder that the future of humanity is collective and cannot be fragmented.
The Centre can turn this crisis into an opportunity to restore mutually respectful terms for relations with States and harmony among communities — both currently frayed.
Unshakeable national unity is essential for the country to tide over the pandemic crisis.
If India can come out of this more united and more resolute, the pains of the pandemic will fade sooner.
The coronavirus is forcing the re-examination in many nations about national power.
The Centre must use this sobering backdrop to analyse India’s priorities as a country and revisit its idea of citizenship and plans for the NPR. The Centre must use the opportunity of the pause in NPR to redraft questions.
2) Political pardon: On Sri Lankan soldiers release
The grant of presidential pardon, on Thursday, to a Sri Lankan soldier on death row for murdering eight Tamil villagers has sparked justified outrage among those who have been demanding justice from the state for past crimes.
Far from helping the cause of accountability for war-time atrocities, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has gone the other way to nullify a rare instance of justice being ensured by Sri Lanka’s judicial system.
Not many army men have been brought to book for attacks on civilians; but, in what came to be known as the ‘Mirusuvil massacre’, military police had immediately detained the soldiers involved, thus denying them impunity.
The victims included three boys aged 5, 13 and 15.
In December 2000, a group of internally displaced villagers had come to have a look at their war-ravaged homes at Mirusuvil in the Jaffna peninsula.
They ran into some army men, who led them away blindfolded. Their bodies were later found in a sewer, with their throats slit.
The only one who escaped later led the military police to the spot and turned a crucial witness.
Five soldiers were indicted, and a special provision for having a trial before a bench of three high court judges was invoked.
The plodding trial ended in 2015 with only one of them, Sunil Ratnayake, being found guilty. He was sentenced to death, but there is a moratorium on executions since 1976.
It hardly needs emphasis that the exercise of the power of pardon is an act of compassion, and not a tool for political or electoral messaging.
However, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has sent out a message to his vast body of supporters among the Sinhalese that he would not let ‘war heroes’ languish in prison.
Even if it means that the minority Tamils get a chilling message that substantive justice for war crimes will always elude them; and even when rendered, it could be undone with a stroke of the pen.
There is also an electoral angle to the decision, as parliamentary polls were set for April 25, but have now been postponed in view of the global pandemic.
The process of granting pardon may have been going on in the run-up to the polls.
Sri Lanka’s Constitution lays down a procedure that says the President must get a report from the trial judge, the Attorney General’s advice on that, and a recommendation from the Minister for Justice before he can pardon a convict.
However, there appears to be no rule that such advice or recommendation is binding.
Apart from some domestic voices from the Tamil leadership and individual politicians, the UN Human Rights High Commissioner and rights watchdog bodies have questioned the release of the soldier, rightly calling it an affront to the victims.
The pardon, granted at a time when the country’s focus is on fighting COVID-19, is a serious setback to hopes that accountability could be brought about in Sri Lanka through domestic mechanisms.
Freeing a soldier convicted for massacre dashes hopes for accountability in Sri Lanka.
3) An inadequate lockdown package
The Central government has asked States to seal borders to prevent lakhs of workers, who have been rendered jobless overnight with no guarantee of wages and shelter, from reaching their villages.
The workers are to be herded into quarantine zones. These atrocious actions amount to a mass criminalisation of the labour force of India.
APATHY OF THE GOVERNMENT:
The workers are paying for the callousness of the government in declaring a lockdown without even a day’s notice.
The Home Ministry has also invoked Sections 51 to 60 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, to imprison those who violate government instructions.
However, it is not using the same law to transfer essential funds to the States in the front line of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
The sealing orders come after the Finance Minister’s announcement of a “package of â‚¹1.7 lakh crore for the poor”.
If the workers really believed that the package was helpful, they would not have started their long march home.
There are two components of the Central government package that are welcome.
One, households that are already entitled to receive foodgrains at subsidised rates from the public distribution system will be given an additional 5 kg free for the next three months.
With the sharp rise in the prices of essential commodities, this measure will also bring down the prices of foodgrains.
The government should follow this up with the inclusion of other essential commodities at subsidised rates through the PDS.
Offering one kilo of pulses a month for an entire family, as has been done in the package, does not even rate as a charitable gesture. It is also too small an amount to have any impact on the rising prices of pulses.
The challenge will be to ensure that the free foodgrains reach the beneficiaries. For this all the conditionalities should be waived.
For example, lakhs of people, including migrant workers, do not have ration cards. They should not be denied free foodgrains; their presence in the village should be enough proof of their existence.
Similarly, the thousands of migrant workers stranded in the cities should also have access to free foodgrains. Mechanisms have to be set up urgently.
Two, all beneficiaries of the PM Ujjwala Yojana will be given free LPG cylinders over a three-month period.
Apart from monetary relief, this will especially help women who will find it difficult to step out of their homes to collect fuel.
So far, for the last few years, the government has not given any benefits to the people in spite of the sharp reduction in global crude prices, the levying of higher duties on petroleum products, and the consequent windfall in government revenues.
A free gas cylinder would be a tiny portion of this revenue. Nevertheless, it is welcome.
PROBLEMS IN THE PACKAGE:
The rest of the “package” can be described in many ways, the most polite of which would be to call it disappointingly inadequate.
In fact, although claimed to be a package of â‚¹1.7 lakh crore, the actual additional funds allocated by the government for alleviating economic distress caused by measures to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 are much smaller and mainly notional.
For crores of daily workers, the reality is that if they stay home, their families can’t eat.
For this large section of the population, what was required was an immediate cash transfer, through the PM Jan-Dhan Yojana or MNREGA accounts of a minimum of â‚¹5,000 for the three-week period of the lockdown.
Instead, the government has decided to give a cash transfer of just â‚¹500 a month to women with Jan-Dhan accounts. This is around 53% of the 38 crore accounts.
The other cash transfer is equally meagre. The government has decided to give â‚¹1,000 to pension holders who are widows, disabled and senior citizens.
As is known, these are not universal schemes. Only a small percentage of such citizens, about 3 crore people, get the pension.
Taken together the cash transfers to the poor comes to under â‚¹35,000 crore.
These cash transfers are the lowest in the world. Every other country hit by the COVID-19 pandemic has done more for its poor and working people than the Indian government.
It is a shame that a government that can write off bad loans, primarily to corporates, amounting to â‚¹2.4 lakh crore (in 2019) cannot even match that amount to save its poor from certain hunger and starvation.
Whereas countries have guaranteed up to 70% to 80% of workers’ wages to prevent lay-offs, the Indian government limits it to a subsidy on EPF. If workers are thrown out of employment, what good would this be?
The Finance Minister claimed that 5 crore families would benefit from a â‚¹20 increase in the daily wages for MGNREGA workers. This is based on the assumption that all workers who are registered get 100 days of work a year.
The MGNREGA website itself contradicts the Minister’s claims. The average workdays are just between 45 to 49 days a year, which means a less than â‚¹1,000 annual benefit from the measly wage increase.
Moreover, there are a substantial amount of wage arrears that the Finance Minister was silent on.
In the lockdown period, all MGNREGA work has stopped. Shockingly, the guidelines issued by the Home Ministry on March 24 do not consider agricultural work as an essential service.
The Central government has to change its guidelines so that rural workers can demand work under MGNREGA.
The â‚¹2,000 for farmers is already a government scheme which was due in four months and has been accounted for in the Budget.
It would be deceitful if this amount were to be included in the â‚¹1.7 lakh crore package, as seems to be the case.
Also, the District Mineral Fund, which is legally mandated to be used for tribal welfare in mining-affected districts, is now to be used by State governments for meeting COVID-19-related expenditure.
It is illegal to divert funds meant for the most exploited of our society to fulfil the financial responsibilities of the Central government.
AN AVOIDABLE TRAGEDY:
The government’s refusal to take the people into confidence about the lockdown that had already been planned, as indicated by the Prime Minister in his second address on COVID-19, has led to immense avoidable distress.
Thousands of workers remain stranded without food, shelter or money in cities. Countless have walked hundreds of kilometers, facing hostile police forces, just to get home.
A lockdown which is considered essential to fight SARS-CoV-2 cannot lead to a disproportionate burden on the poor.
The government must expand its package to ensure that the spectre of SARS-CoV-2 is not replaced by the spectre of hunger and suffering for the majority of Indians.
At a time of crisis when India unites, the lockdown should not mean a lockdown of the rights of the working poor.
4) From apathy to action
Migrant workers and their family members walk on a highway to go to their village during the national coronavirus lockdown in Ahmedabad on March 28, 2020.
In dealing with the crisis, the Centre should not only learn from States but also act on its own.â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹
In dealing with the health and economic crisis, the Central government’s apathy is disappointing.
The Prime Minister’s speech created panic even for the well-off. For the most vulnerable, it triggered a huge exodus from the cities.
They were given neither time to prepare for the unplanned lockdown nor support to cope with it.
A few days into the lockdown, either as an afterthought or due to public pressure, a relief package was announced, but it is woefully inadequate.
For a government that cares so much about optics, the lack of acknowledgement of, let alone relief for, the millions of migrant workers who are stranded without work, money or transport was perplexing.
The government chose to ignore the plight of migrants even though a solution exists.
School buildings, community halls and stadiums can serve as temporary shelters.
Food grains can be supplied in these places for workers to run self-managed community kitchens for themselves, with hygiene protocols.
They can prepare food packets (to reduce crowding) for anyone who is hungry. The more shelters and community kitchens, the less crowding there will be.
Some existing programmes have been declared as new relief measures — for example, the payment of the first instalment of the PM Kisan Yojana money.
The Finance Minister announced that MGNREGA workers would earn an additional â‚¹2,000. This assumes that work sites are open, and that the Central government will guarantee 100 days of work.
In the last financial year, less than 7% of active job card holders got 100 days of work. The wage increase of â‚¹20/day was, in fact, part of an annual exercise which preceded the lockdown.
Similarly, some States too are focusing only on optics. The U.P. Chief Minister announced that â‚¹556 crore of wages due to NREGA workers (from the previous financial year) will be paid immediately.
So, wages that are already overdue are being projected as a new relief measure.
Oddly, the Centre has blocked attempts by others to ease the economic blow.
When two High Courts granted temporary relief on loan recoveries, the Supreme Court stayed those orders in response to a challenge by the Union of India.
RESPONSE OF THE STATES:
Though there is a glimmer of hope from State governments, they lack sufficient resources as they are still owed their GST refund by the Centre.
Kerala has been at the forefront of fighting the disease spread and planning for a lockdown. When Anganwadis and schools had to be shut down, Kerala initiated dry ration supplies to their homes.
When other States also shut down schools and Anganwadis, the Supreme Court took suo motu notice of Kerala’s actions.
In response, the Central government issued an advisory to provide cooked meals or food security allowance. Jharkhand opted for cash.
During the lockdown, when people are being asked to stay home and supply chains are in danger of being disrupted, what sense does it make to give cash?
Some States are also learning from one another: community kitchens already exist in some States such as Tamil Nadu. Others like Kerala and Delhi have quickly scaled up.
Other relief measures include advance payment of social security pensions, free PDS ration, food packets for those who are not covered by the PDS and free bus travel (Rajasthan).
One welcome announcement on March 26 was the doubling of PDS rations for the coming three months.
Here too, Central inaction and class bias are evident. While a Personnel Ministry order says biometric attendance for Central government employees will be stopped, to reduce the risk of community transmission, no such order from the Food Ministry has come yet.
Some States have already suspended biometric authentication for buying PDS ration.
Biometric authentication has been a source of exclusion (example, when authentication failed) from the PDS. Suspending it will help further.
The Centre should support the States’ actions and learn from them. Before it is too late, the Centre itself must act by increasing resource allocation and setting up sector-specific committees to facilitate prompt responses.