After coming to terms with life with coronavirus and preparing to fight it over a long period, the Narendra Modi government is now focused on reviving the economy as it has announced a Rs 20 lakh crore economic package.
Economic revival and reboot of business activity has taken centre stage as India moves ahead while learning to live with coronavirus – whose reliable cure or antidote is still as far as early next year. After using the lockdown – almost 54 days for most states – for preparing the nation to fight Covid-19, bringing back stranded Indian citizens from abroad and streamlining the return of migrant workers to their native states, the BJP-led Central government is moving ahead to encourage the corporate world to revive manufacturing activity and start production under strict anti-coronavirus measures. The Centre has now announced a Rs 20 lakh crore economic package for what Prime Minister Narendra Modi called "Mission Self-Reliant India" to defeat coronavirus.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also indicated to state Chief Ministers that economic activities, which had started to pick up with the partial easing of lockdown restrictionson May 4, would gather further steam in the coming days. Notably, the red zones make up for around 60% of GDP and these zones have the most stringent restrictions to keep Covid-19 under check.
The message is clear that the Centre is likely to further relax the lockdown guidelines to help reboot of economic activities to save livelihood, even if the shutter down is extended beyond May 17 in highly-populated urban commercial centres.
One healthy sign of the positive atmosphere for revival of economic activity is the country's largest carmaker Maruti Suzuki restarting production and delivery of new cars. The car maker’s decision to restart production of vehicles at its Manesar (Haryana) plant and re-open over 500 dealerships which were closed due to lockdown sent out a healthy message about the government and industries’ joint resolve to restore the economic activity. The plant restarted at Manesar produces vehicles like Ciaz, Dzire, Ertiga and WagonR. According to industry sources, Maruti's inventory – including its stockyards and dealer networks – was around 130,000 vehicles till recently. While opening showrooms, the company took care to begin from states in green zones and laid down standard operating procedures (SoPs) and employed tools like digital interface to customers keen to buy new cars. Maruti’s partially opened-factory Manesar is a showpiece facility and bigger than its second plant in Haryana at Gurgaon. The annual production capacity of the Manesar and Gurgaon factories together is over 15 lakh vehicles. The largest car maker in the country also has a plant in Gujarat.
Like Maruti, other automobile makers like Hyundai, Mahindra and Mahindra, Hero MotoCorp and Bajaj Auto have also taken measures to restore production in keeping with government directions.
While Maruti has shown the way to many corporate on cautions return to production activity, there is some cause of concern in the industry that the graded opening of lockdown has not done much to restart manufacturing as over 60% of units still remain shut and most others operate at just 10-15% capacity.
This has worry among the industrialists has manifested in signs of desperation among government circles to pull the economy out of gloom. The task facing many government departments like the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) also appears uphill as the government’s chief highway builder is struggling to overcome a fund crunch that has become more serious due to the downturn. The transport ministry’s key department plans to award contracts for 4,000 km and develop 4,500 km highway length in the current fiscal compared with 3,979 km construction and 3,200 km awards in 2019-20 but the coronavirus related fears among infra investors appear to be spoiling its plans.
The lack of investor interest due to the coronavirus-related global gloom has forced the NHAI to defer its plans for fund mobilisation through asset monetisation which is crucial for funding its projects and reducing its debt that touched Rs 1.8 lakh crore by March 2019. In the long run, the Modi government wants NHAI to construct over 34,000 km highway projects under the first phase of thhe Bharatmala Pariyojana, with an estimated outlay of Rs 5.35 lakh crore.
While the economic front has started getting renewed attention, the political scene has also started getting active. While the Congress continues to attack the BJP government and question the Centre’s plans post-May 17 when lockdown 3.0 shall end, the national capital too has been witnessing an intense battle of wits between the ruling AAP and the Opposition parties.
Politics over care for frontline warriors hot up in the national capital with the Opposition parties targeting the AAP government for ignoring their contribution and giving poor facilities to those quarantined after testing positive. Stung by the attacks, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal expressed disappointment over the Oppositions' remarks and mockery on the provision of special facilities for Covid warriors.
“We have attached five-star hotels with the Rajiv Gandhi Super Specialty Hospitals, which has been declared as a dedicated Covid hospital. If any of our Covid warriors get affected by corona, they will be treated in those hotels. It is our responsibility to take care of them because they are working and taking care of the people all this time," he said soon after facing heat from the rival BJP which pointed to social media messages of several frontline warriors who had themselves fallen to the infection but were allegedly getting pathetic treatment at the hands of the authorities during quarantine.
Kejriwal said he was disappointed with the Opposition mocking and questioning the order of taking over five star hotels for extending special facilities to our Covid warriors. "I want to ask them, what is the harm in spending funds on the care and health of these people? What is the harm in giving Rs 1 crore as honorary compensation on the death of a Covid warrior?” he asked. The Chief Minister said, "I want to appeal to everyone, this is not the time to do politics but to work collectively for the people and the nation in these tough times. Please help each other, work together against these issues, and work for the society."
Despite Kejriwal’s defence of his government’s actions to tackle coronavirus, youth organisation Krantikari Yuva Sangathan (KYS) condemned the lack of provision of rations to the people in Delhi. It alleged there is widespread inadequateness of rations being distributed to people many of whom are being made to stand in serpentine queues. As a result of all these issues, there is widespread misery among the people as many families are being forced to go hungry due to lack of access to rations. In a memorandum submitted to MLAs, the KYS demanded that the ration amount should be increased and complete ration kits should be ensured to all the labouring masses. Moreover, the number of ration distribution centres should be increased so as to increase access and ensure succour to the people in the time of such widespread misery.
At the national level, about 500 special Shramik Express trains have ferried over five lakh migrant workers to their native states and special Rajdhani Express trains have started operating to bring back some sort of normalcy in the country by linking 15 cities with New Delhi. Another hundred such trains are likely to run in the next few days.
Modi has made it clear that there would be no let up in the nation’s fight against the pandemic. His team’s fight against the pandemic is based on its reasonable knowledge of the infection’s geographical spread, including the worst affected areas. While Kerala has presented a successful model for controlling the spread of Covid-19s and treating patients, the coming weeks will demonstrate how well the Centre overcomes the humanitarian and financial burden imposed on the country by coronavirus.
In the shape of Covid-19, fate has thrown a range of challenges at India. For Modi, the crisis may offer a chance to serve the people better. Collectively, the Centre and states should take to bipartisanship and ensure that the pandemic does not set back the next generation by decades. Proposing and accepting landmark reforms in laws, especially those related to land and labour, to attract global investment would be the key to opening the little door of opportunity at the time of the humongous crisis that has shaken the foundation of mankind.