Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Only policy option left: Save both lives, livelihood

Every morning, in these dark days of covid-19, brings a bad feeling with its soulless gloom. But last Friday, it came with much more shocking news. Sixteen people were run over by a train in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. They were walking back home from faraway industrial units. Just two days before this incident, Lucknow witnessed a similar accident. Krishna Sahu, a daily labourer, decided to return to his village in Jharkhand. When he found no other conveyance, he decided to go by bicycle, along with his wife and two children, on Wednesday night. But bad luck was following them. They were run over by a speeding vehicle. The couple died on the spot and the children are in hospital.

There was a defining image of Maharashtra—blood-stained rotis scattered over the railway track. They actually came to such faraway land, just to earn these rotis. While going back, they were surviving on these rotis. They lost their lives for these rotis.

Just a day before it, we saw some pictures of Sayan Hospital in Mumbai—some patients were lying in their beds, with some sealed dead bodies in the same room. What else can you expect in a country which spend less than 2% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on health. So, no matter how much the Centre and state government might try, it’s not possible to manage the epidemic at the eleventh hour. This is high time society and the government came together.

But till now, they are failing. In Kathua of Jammu and Kashmir, when workers got less than regular salaries, they got angry and started rioting on the streets. Army vehicles also became the targets of their anger. At the same time, dozens of labourers in Haldwani of Uttarakhand were staging a dharna. Their complaint was that they neither had any livelihood nor food, nor were they being allowed to go back home. When some migrant labourers were stopped near Agra, while walking back home, they blocked the entire road. Such stories are being repeated, every day, in a different part of the country. For how long can we stop such movement when they are not getting any money at all.

State governments have appealed to factory owners and businessmen to neither cut the salaries of these workers, nor remove them from their jobs. When they did not get any money for April, some district magistrates talked to these entrepreneurs. Their reply was straight: we already have paid for March, now it’s not possible to pay for April, when there is no work. When the administration tried to twist their arms, their reply was more straight: we don’t have money to pay, you can send us to jail. Though the big corporate houses are not in favour of any layoff, the situation may get out of hand in a more prolonged lockdown.

According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a Mumbai-based think tank, when the lockdown was declared, India’s unemployment rate was around 7%. Fifty days after the lockdown, it has reached 27%. A report by Hindustan Times published last week tells us that the number of jobless agricultural labourers has reached 10 million in Maharashtra, 7.5 million in Uttar Pradesh, 6.8 million in Tamil Nadu, 5.2 million in Gujarat and 4.7 million in West Bengal. The number of non-agricultural labour in Delhi has reached up to 4.2 million. Moody’s has predicted that India’s GDP might drop to 0%. A similar prediction was given by Goldman Sachs.

The biggest question, right now, is whether to prolong the lockdown or to move the wheels of the economy? Lockdown is saving lives, but it’s like riding a tiger—it’s almost impossible to dismount. We have no other option but to make it possible: we have to save the lives and livelihoods at the same time. How can we achieve it?

One approach has been given by US President Donald Trump. While announcing the plan to lift the lockdown, he said, “There’ll be more death, that the virus will pass, with or without a vaccine". He added, “People are losing their jobs. We have to bring it back, and that’s what we’re doing. We can’t sit in the house for the next three years." Some European countries are also following this approach. With more than 3,000 covid-19 deaths, Sweden refused to implement any lockdown, except for some safety measures. In India, there are efforts to restart economic activities, but they are not enough. It’s time to kickstart the wheels of business in India, of course with strict measures of social distancing. We can’t lock up such a big population in their homes.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekarkahin

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