Indian Express Editorial Analysis
22 May 2020

1) Taking off-


CONTEXT:

  • In line with the decision to slowly reopen parts of the economy, on Wednesday the Centre announced the resumption of domestic flights from May 25 in a calibrated(measured) manner.
  • The move will come as much-needed relief for the beleaguered(weakened) airlines industry — commercial flights have been suspended since March 25, with only cargo and special flights being allowed to operate in the intervening period.

 

NO DEMAND TO PICK SOON:

  • To begin with, airlines will operate with only a fraction of their flights, slowly scaling up thereafter.
  • However, with the virus continuing to spread, and households likely to curb(restrict) their discretionary spending owing to the prevailing(existing) economic and health uncertainty, it is difficult to estimate the extent to which demand for air travel will revive in the near term.
  • Metros such as Delhi and Mumbai, which are the worst affected by the virus and account for an overwhelming(large number) share of the total air traffic in the country, may not see demand recover meaningfully in the near term.
  • Till the pandemic scare(fear) abates(reduces), routes where the virus spread is more are likely to be less in demand. Further, as India will not be issuing any visas anytime soon, international operations of the domestic carriers will also remain shut.

REGULATING AIRFARE:

  • The Central government has also taken a decision to regulate airfare, with a range being prescribed for each route. For instance, the Delhi-Mumbai airfare is capped between Rs 3,500 to Rs 10,000.
  • The government’s rationale for doing so is two-fold:
  • First, to ensure that tickets don’t become exorbitantly(highly) priced for the consumer, and second, to prevent the stronger airlines from using their financial muscle(advantage) to indulge in pricing that will hurt the financial viability of the competition, driving them out.
  • While extraordinary times may well call for extraordinary measures, it must be pointed out that price controls are counterproductive in the long run.

PROBLEM WITH GOVT REGULATION:

  • They inevitably(unavoidably) lead to problems of shortages, rationing, deterioration of product quality, and even black markets.
  • As such, governments should avoid the temptation of setting prices and, instead, allow the market to function. It’s best not to distort(disturb) market prices.
  • Issues of “predatory pricing(the pricing of goods or services at such a low level that other firms cannot compete and are forced to leave the market) are best left to be examined by the Competition Commission of India, which takes into account market dominance, as well as underlying cost structures.
  • Perhaps realising the consequences of such interventions to “correct” prices, the government has also notified that the fares will be fixed only for a period of three months.

CONCLUSION:

  • With the virus yet to be contained, airlines as well as airports will need to ensure that the standard operating procedures on health and safety of passengers are followed strictly.
  • The onus(responsibility) is also on passengers to ensure compliance with the laid out protocols(rules).
  • Discipline will need to be maintained, and norms of social etiquette(discipline) will have to be adhered(followed) to strictly.
  • Decision to reopen air travel is welcome, an important step towards restarting economic activity.
  • The critical challenge is to control the spread of the virus, while allowing economic activities to restart.

 

2) A diplomatic opening-


CONTEXT:

  • The unanimous(support from all) resolution approved by the World Health Assembly on Tuesday night, calls for an inquiry into the origin and spread of the coronavirus and the international community’s response to it.
  • That the US and China have agreed to the resolution after prolonged acrimony(bitterness) in recent weeks over the origin of coronavirus, is indeed a surprise.
  • The US wanted members of the World Health Organisation to put the blame on Beijing for keeping the world in the dark about the nature of the virus that broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
  • China, which vehemently(aggressively) denied these charges and proffered(offered) accusations of its own against the US, rejected the talk of any inquiry.

 

REASONS BEHIND THE CONSENSUS:

  • The real source of the consensus on the resolution is the enormous(huge) damage inflicted by the virus. It has already infected nearly 5 million people and killed nearly 3,50,000 around the world. To make matters worse, it has ground the global economy to a sudden halt and heaped(put) unprecedented misery(problems) on the world’s population.
  • No wonder most nations want to know where the virus came from, how it spread across the world, and the role that the WHO, as the world’s pandemic watchdog, played.
  • As opinion among member-states converged(come together) in favour of an inquiry, China signalled a measure of flexibility.
  • The US knew that insisting on a more stringent(strict) language would have meant no resolution at all.

CREDIT TO EU AND AUSTRALIA:

  • The credit must go to the EU and Australia that piloted(headed) the move at the WHO and other middle powers like India which extended early and strong diplomatic support.
  • The middle powers have a bigger responsibility in the days ahead as the next round of contestation begins on the terms and conditions of the inquiry.
  • Although the resolution has strong enough claws(points), there is bound to be an unending diplomatic squabble(argument) on its interpretation and implementation.

INDIA TO TAKE THE CHAIR:

  • India, which will take charge of the rotating chair of the WHO’s Executive Board for a year, will have its hands full in guiding the organisation through its most difficult moments.
  • Besides ensuring a productive inquiry into the corona pandemic, Delhi needs to develop a practical agenda for reform and revitalisation of the WHO.

CONCLUSION:

This week’s consensus at the WHO shows it is possible to construct a middle path in the deepening confrontation(problems) between China and America and that the middle powers can exercise global leadership.

 

3) A moment to revive MNREGA-


CONTEXT:

  • The lockdown has resulted in a massive loss of livelihoods, and the 400-million strong unorganised workforce is the worst hit. A significant part of this workforce has migrated to cities from rural areas.
  • With the allocation of an additional Rs 40,000 crore as part of the stimulus package, the Union government has finally acknowledged the importance of MGNREGA.
  • The most important part of MGNREGA’s design is its legally-backed guarantee for any rural adult to get work within 15 days of demanding it.
  • This demand-based trigger enables(makes) the self-selection of workers and gives them an assurance of at least 100 days of wage employment.

 

PUTTING IT IN CONTEXT:

  • Since 2012, an average of 18 per cent of the annual budgetary allocation(assign) for MGNREGA has been spent on clearing pending liabilities(debts) from the previous years.
  • Even this financial year began with pending wage and material liabilities of Rs 16,045 crore.
  • An allocation of Rs 1 lakh crore for FY 2020-21 would mean that approximately Rs 84,000 crore is available for employment generation this year. This will still be the highest allocation for MGNREGA in any year since the passage of the law.
  • However, the allocation, which amounts to 0.47 per cent of the GDP continues to be much lower than the World Bank recommendations of 1.7 per cent for the optimal(favourable) functioning of the programme.
  • Given the scale and depth of the current crisis, this additional allocation too will be under stress, as both the number of people demanding work and the number of days of work they demand will go up dramatically.

STEPS GOVT SHOULD TAKE:

  • Nevertheless, since enough funds are now available to meet at least the immediate demands for work, the government must undertake some immediate steps to ensure the MGNREGA lives up to its potential.
  • First, state governments must ensure that public works are opened in every village. Workers turning up at the worksite should be provided work immediately, without imposing on them the requirement of demanding work in advance.
  • Second, local bodies must proactively reach out to returned and quarantined migrant workers and help those in need to get job cards.
  • Third, at the worksite, adequate facilities such as soap, water, and masks for workers must be provided free of cost.
  • For reasons of health safety, MGNREGA tools should not be shared between workers. The government should provide a tool allowance to all workers — some states are already providing such an allowance.
  • Fourth, procedures for implementing MGNREGA must be simplified but not diluted. The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of decentralised governance.
  • Gram panchayats and elected representatives need to be provided with adequate resources, powers, and responsibilities to sanction works, provide work on demand, and authorise wage payments to ensure there are no delays in payments.
  • Fifth, as per a study by the RBI, more than half the districts in the country are under-banked. The density of bank branches in rural India is even more sparse(less).
  • At this time, payments need to not only reach bank accounts on time, but cash needs to reach the workers easily and efficiently.
  • The limited coverage of bank infrastructure in rural areas must not be made a hurdle. Attempts to distribute wages in cash, sans(without) biometric authentication, must be rolled out.
  • Sixth, there needs to be flexibility in the kinds of work to be undertaken, while ensuring that the community and the workers are the primary beneficiaries.
  • While many governments will possibly prioritise individual land-based works to comply with instructions of physical distancing, it is important to also keep community works going to ensure that landless workers are not crowded out of the programme

EXISTENTIAL CRISIS:

  • Over the last few years, MGNREGA had begun to face an existential crisis, engineered(caused) by successive governments capping(restricting) its financial resources, and turning it into a supply-based programme.
  • Workers had begun to lose interest in working under it because of the inordinate delays in wage payments.
  • With very little autonomy, gram panchayats had begun to find implementation cumbersome(difficult).
  • Barring a few exceptions, state governments were only interested in running the programme to the extent funds were made available from the Centre.
  • Allocating work on demand, and not having enough funds to pay wages on time was bound to cause great distress amongst the workers and eventually for the state too.
  • As a result, state governments had begun to implement MGNREGA like a supply-driven scheme, instead of running it like a demand-based guarantee backed by law.

CONCLUSION:

With nearly eight crore migrant workers returning to their villages, and with an additional allocation for the year, this could be a moment for the true revival of MGNREGA. A revival led by workers themselves.