The union government on Thursday announced a staggering Rs1.7 trillion package to mitigate the brunt of the 21-day lockdown on 80 crore people. It has in the process hit the right notes with the optics no doubt and at the same time prioritised its economic strategy to be one about protecting the most vulnerable.
By sheer scale it dwarfs the fiscal stimulus undertaken in the last big crisis—the 2008 global financial meltdown. More impressive is the rare alacrity with which the union government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to deliver the relief—without worrying about the attendant fiscal costs--to the bottom of the pyramid which was already struggling from the fallout of a rapidly slowing economy. The package is designed to cover the most vulnerable cohorts: farmers, construction workers, women and emergency personnel working on the frontline to tackle the Covid-19 spread.
Implicit in the details are three key clear threads which suggest that the government has a clear game plan about the Covid-19 challenge.
First, by identifying 80 crore beneficiaries it has gone beyond the traditional bureaucratic benchmark: below the poverty line. This is very important as public policy cannot afford an error of omission; it is always better to offer benefits universally with a clear cut-off to leave out the rich. At present the benefits cover 60% of the population and hence seems fairly comprehensive.
Second, flowing from the above it is clear that it has made the poor the center piece of its economic strategy. Not only is this good politics, but it is also good economics; if the poor are economically disenfranchised the bottom will come off the consumer economy. Through the lock down strategy it has chosen to protect human lives and by focusing on the less well-off it is fighting of plausible immiserization of those in the line of fire.
Third, by limiting the package to three months it has basically concluded that the challenge would fade in this period. This is hugely significant as the rest of the economy will take the cue and ready for post-Covid 19 phase. More importantly it signals light at the end of the tunnel.
In the net it is clear that the Modi government has started off with a good game plan. As they say, anything well begun is half done.