Home / Opinion / Columns /  Covid has given leaders a chance to go for a reset
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This Diwali, as Hindus prepared to worship Ganesha, the god of new beginnings, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, what must have been on their minds? They must have prayed: “O Lambodar! Save me and my family from the pandemic... Mother Lakshmi! What happened last Diwali should never happen again. This time, our pockets must not be empty."

The fall in the number of new covid cases and bullish markets in India are enough to give hope to these devotees. It’s tough to predict the GDP numbers, but there are definitely some good and bad news for the Indian middle class. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), India added 850,000 jobs in September. This is the first time since the covid outbreak in March 2020 that such a large number of jobs have been created. As a result, the unemployment rate has fallen by 1.5% to 6.9%.

The goods and services tax (GST) collections look promising and are poised to scale record highs. Shoppers thronging markets on Dhanteras and Diwali emphasize this fact. The residential property sector grew by 13% in the last quarter and there is also an increase of 90% in new real estate project launches.

However, I’d prefer not to talk about the stock market. Many people have been taken by surprise as the market hits new peaks. But does it really reflect the health of the Indian economy?

Now, to the bad news. CMIE data show that 640,000 people lost their jobs in October. According to another report published a few months ago, more than 20 million people had lost their jobs in April-May. The job market has certainly improved now, but staggering small and medium-sized enterprises are still not able to achieve their next targets. These statistics show that while employment has increased in some sectors, it is also reducing in other sectors. That’s a worry for India’s large army of unemployed youth.

Extreme inflation has also broken the back of the middle class. Fuel prices have been reduced on the initiative of the Centre, but how effective will that be? Whether it is LPG or cooking oil, the prices are on fire. High vegetable prices forced many people to spend less on food during the festive season. The Global Hunger Index is also reflecting this reality. In this index, India has been placed well below Pakistan and Nepal.

It is often said that foreign survey agencies are not aware of our ground realities and their standards are set in such a way that the achievements of developing countries are less visible. This is actually a half-truth. The National Family Health Survey also seems to support the Global Hunger Index in a way. After in-depth research in 17 states, the surveyors found that there was a shocking increase in malnutrition cases in 11 states. Whether it is poor Bihar or rich Gujarat, the situation everywhere is worrisome. Up to 40% of children are malnourished in these states. When almost the whole new generation is suffering because of not getting adequate nutrition, what will happen to our future?

Growing unemployment is not an India-specific problem. Let’s talk about the most powerful and developed country in the world, the US. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found that 12% of people in the US do not have access to adequate food. As much as 16% of Americans do not have money to pay their rent. Moreover, about one-third of the people don’t have enough money for their daily expenses. Like the Dalits, minorities and tribals in India, the situation of black and Latino families in the US is more dire. The US is not alone. Inequality is spreading rapidly in Germany. Recently, there were strong protests in Berlin against the needless increase in residential rents. The protesters lamented that landlords have increased the rents by 30-40%, but are not paying any attention to the maintenance of the houses. Demonstrations against inflation, unemployment and misery have also increased in Eastern Europe and Latin America.

In such a case, it is not possible to contain the spread of unemployment. On the one hand, employees are being laid off, while, on the other hand, a large number of skilled workers and executives are saying goodbye to their companies. Microsoft recently found in a worldwide survey that up to 40% of those who are employed want to change their jobs. The year 2020-21 is already being labelled as ‘The Great Resignation Year’.

The message is loud and clear: many aspects of the current world order are in need of drastic changes. The covid pandemic has exposed some hidden realities across the world. Many heads of states are facing new challenges. If they wish, they can turn these challenges into opportunities to create a better world.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.

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