Home / Opinion / Views /  The devil resides in the details of policy that are left unattended

The war against covid will be won only if policy looks at the devil in the details. I list below a few instances where this is critically needed.

The first relates to rural India, where we cannot wait for vaccine availability. There is no alternative to going with test-isolate-treat on a war footing. However, people will not come forward for covid tests, unless their incentive structure is catered to.

The household of any individual who tests positive will be barred from work sites, including those of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Even an individual who tests negative will be barred from a MGNREGA site if a member of the household is known to have tested positive (the scheme offers work on any day to any one member listed on a household job card). Already, person-days in May 2021 are reported to have fallen to 217 million, the best indicator of the spread of covid, since May in a normal year sees more than 300 million person-days. A rational rural household will much prefer to retain access to MGNREGA work sites until someone in the household actually falls ill. MGNREGA is too precious a lifeline to be thrown away for a test result.

Households where any member tests positive, or where someone has actually fallen sick, will have to be compensated at the MGNREGA wage for 15 days (the duration of quarantine). It should be possible to issue a Central ordinance (since it is a Central act anyway) that job cards of households where a member tests positive, or has fallen sick, can be marked for 15 days of deemed work, in addition to the normal entitlement of 100 days per year. Funding can come from the MGNREGA budget head, where the budgetary provision is a floor rather than a cap, since it is a demand-driven scheme.

But further details need attention. MGNREGA wages today are transmitted through direct bank transfers, and reach workers as cash in hand through banking correspondents or some other means. That channel will have to be tailored to those quarantined, with a follow-on mechanism for them to translate that cash into food and other needs. All these steps have to be fully in place for testing to proceed without resistance in rural areas.

Rural residents at other work sites risk income loss too if a member of the household tests positive. Compensation for them will have to come from the same discretionary budget head from which ex gratia payments are made to families who have lost family members to covid. The difficulty is that it will have to be immediate, and in cash, in order for people to actually come forward freely for testing. And without that, there is no hope of containing the rampant spread of the disease.

The second area concerns the production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme for incremental manufacturing capacity in 13 sectors. The response to these incentives is constrained by a skills shortage. The PLI schemes have diverse ministerial points of origin, starting April 2020 with the ministry of electronics, and the ministry of chemicals, and going on to many others. Unless these ministerial silos feed into a consolidated set of pooled needs, such as for skills of particular kinds, and other unmet needs whatever they may be, this excellent scheme will be stymied. These pooled needs will then have to be relayed to the relevant ministries for immediate attention (the ministry of skill development for one).

To fend off other impediments to the PLI scheme, such as the labour uprising in the Wistron factory in Bengaluru, there has to be constant communication with the relevant state departments to ensure that local permissions are facilitated, and that workers are paid on time (the problem in the Wistron facility). Serious delays in wage payments seem to the problem in the MGNREGA scheme too.

Third, there has been an avalanche of gifts in kind from well-meaning foreign donors, of medicines and oxygen plants and other equipment. The management of this has been assigned to Niti Aayog. There has to be a display of district needs on a state-level portal, from which distribution is done nationally using an equitable but flexible formula. Then the actual logistics will have to be worked out for each type of input or equipment, in terms of distances from air and sea ports where they have been unloaded, to the district point of use. This is not a trivial exercise, and needs people with skills in logistics planning drawn from the military or the railways. The team for this does not have to move to Niti Aayog’s premises, and can just function virtually from wherever its members are. But they have to be welded together and have a clear coordinator, with operational autonomy.

Finally, an example of lack of attention to detail in the past. When oxygen was banned for industrial use, no one looked at requirements for the manufacture of oxygen cylinders, which therefore got stalled for some time. Going forward, input-output tables, which map usage of the output of every sector into all sectors as inputs, including as an input into itself, should be used to avert such policy stumbles.

Indira Rajaraman is an economist

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