Balancing economy, lockdown a Herculean task
Centre should announce a massive stimulus package to put the country’s battered economy on track
For Indians, Abhimanyu is a familiar name. So are his heroics in epic Mahabharat War. Son of Arjuna, the third of Pandava brothers, Abhimanyu was as skilful in war craft as his father.
To eliminate him and thus weaken Pandavas in epic Kurukshetra war, rival Kauravas lured him into padmavyuha, an intricate military formation that comprises a web of multiple defensive walls. Such a war strategy is deployed to surround key leaders of the opposition and force them to surrender or kill them.
A rarely used war strategy on the ground, padmavyuha was deployed against Abhimanyu because Kauravas knew that the young and able warrior from Pandavas' side was well-versed with the technique for entering such a battle formation, but did not know how to exit.
Abhimanyu, known for his valor, rode into padmavyuha with confidence that he would destroy all the rivals and come back unscathed. He thought he wouldn't need the exit strategy. But his lack of expertise in exit technique proved fatal and the valiant warrior was killed on the 13th day of Mahabharat war.
His father Arjuna and uncle Lord Krishna, who knew the exit technique, could not save him as the duo were engaged in a war with Kauravas elsewhere. Abhimanyu was just 16 when he was killed.
Mahabharat War would not have lasted long had he survived because by then he already defeated Bhishma and Drona, the legendary warriors on Kauravas' side. Nevertheless, Abhimanyu's story tells us that it is always safe to have an exit strategy before stepping into a difficult situation. Otherwise, the price we pay will be huge.
This applies to India now as it battles the deadly novel coronavirus, which has crippled the world, infecting over 1.7 million people and claiming over one lakh lives thus far.
However, India is still in safe zone as the virus could infect just over 7,600 people and claim about 250 lives. But there might be some undetected cases as well.
Further, there are enough indications that Covid-19 pandemic triggered by the Chinese-born coronavirus already reached third stage in the country, which indicates community transmission.
Still, for a country of over 130 crore people, these are small numbers. So, it's a biggest achievement for India at a time when superpower USA and other developed countries landed in unprecedented healthcare crisis, losing thousands of lives every day.
However, our country could slow down the march of dangerous corona because it had acted a bit faster and imposed 21-day total national lockdown on March 24.
This forced majority of Indians to remain indoors, thus maintaining some sort of social distancing, the only preventive measure to control the pandemic as the world is yet to develop a vaccine or medicines for Covid-19.
With corona cases rising by the day despite the lockdown and the fear of community transmission becoming a reality, the lockdown is set to be extended by two more weeks, i.e., up to April 30. That means the country will be in the lockdown for 37 days if it is not extended beyond April 30.
But the total lockdown comes at a huge economic cost. Some estimates say that the Indian economy is losing about Rs 40,000 crore every day on account of the lockdown. On that count, the economy will take a hit of a whopping Rs 15 lakh crore during 37 days of the lockdown.
For a poor country like India where majority of people work in unorganised sectors and survive on daily wages, the adverse impact of this monumental economic loss is multifold. Further, sector after sector is already showing signs of distress and financial turmoil.
Millions of jobs are likely to disappear and people who depend on those jobs for their sustenance will suffer for a prolonged period if the lockdown continues for long.
Furthermore, an exercise like total lockdown only postpones the crisis and lowers its gravity. It will not provide complete cure to the coronavirus pandemic. The threat will loom large even if the country is locked down for six months.
Moreover, expecting people to remain indoors for long is not practically possible. More so with those who eke out a living on daily earnings and small businesses. People are already flouting lockdown norms with impunity and moving from one city to other without any hindrance.
The whole purpose of lockdown will be defeated even if 10 per cent of the population violates it. Moreover, law enforcement personnel will not be able to slog out for so long. So, it may not be possible for the governments to enforce total lockdown after April 30.
Therefore, the lockdown will have to be restricted to only hotspots after the extension. That way, economic activities can resume in other areas where the incidence of the contagion is low. However, strict social distancing norms should be put in place.
Besides, the government should make it mandatory for all people to wear masks and take adequate precautionary measures for several months thereafter. Only industrial and commercial units where such precautions could be taken, should be allowed to operate until corona threat fades out completely.
But, there are ample chances of Covid-19 cases spurting even if the lockdown is partially lifted. So, over the next three weeks, the governments should prepare the healthcare system for an eventuality by increasing number of beds, isolation centres and medical equipment.
A health emergency should be declared. Under it, the government should mandate all the private hospitals to set up isolation wards and treat Covid-19 patients. Without active support of the private healthcare sector, the country can't eliminate the corona threat.
The government should have done it long back. Further, all the qualified healthcare professionals including doctors should be deployed. That way, the country will be ready to tackle even if the Covid-19 rises its ugly as it has been doing in the developed countries.
On the economic front, the Centre should announce a massive economic revival package. As some industry bodies suggested, the stimulus package should be to the tune of at least Rs 10 lakh crore over next one year.
And it should take care of MSMEs as well as large companies. The package should include cut in GST rates, interest-free loans to MSMEs for a period of six months or one year and lower interest rates on working capital for corporates and sectors which have badly been impacted by the lockdown.
However, the Centre should take suggestions from all political parties and experts in different fields before formulating a comprehensive roadmap for controlling the coronavirus while keeping the economic fabric of the country intact.
However, my request to the Modi government is that it should not take one suggestion from Congress party seriously. Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi suggested that the Centre should ban all government advertisements to the media for two years. She wants the funds saved from this ban to be used for fighting Covid-19 pandemic.
This suggestion is deplorable. The Congress leader seems to have conveniently forgotten the key role the media has been playing in combating the deadly virus. It is the print and electronic media which are disseminating authentic information on the novel coronavirus and its impact to people amid an unprecedented flow of fake news in the social media.
It is pertinent to mention here that digital payment app Paytm has added a new feature, in which it offers e-paper editions of all major newspapers in India. It advised users to read newspapers so as not to fall prey to fake news on coronavirus, circulating on social media. This buttresses the prominent role that the media is playing now.
So, asking the Modi government to ban media advertisements is preposterous. This is not to say that India's media survives solely on the government advertisements. Private advertisements are essential for the media industry.
But, with private sector in deep crisis triggered by the lockdown, the media sector is also facing unprecedented financial challenges and its survival is in danger. Therefore, ban on government advertisements will push the key sector into a deeper crisis and the future of thousands of people, who depend on the sector for jobs, will be in jeopardy.
It looks like some senior Congress leaders misguided their leader on this aspect. Like many self-defeating strategies Congress adopted in last decade or so, this suggestion will harm the country's oldest political party politically.
Anyway, balancing the economy and the lockdown holds key for India's survival from corona threat. Of course, it's a Herculean task as the country has entered a padmavyuha. But the country's leadership should formulate a smooth exit strategy and bring the country out unscathed.
Otherwise, Covid-19 will simply explode after the lockdown goes, thereby pushing the country into a deeper mess. All the hardships people suffered during the lockdown will go waste. And the country will become another Abhimanyu. And there will be political repercussions as well!