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The nowhere people

Policy-making is about ensuring that policy measures impact people favourably or at least do not impact the economically or otherwise handicapped unfavourably, which is a principle that is observed in its absence. Matters get worse under straitened conditions



In a plaintive message, potter Arun Pal, master craftsman, recognized and feted by the government and the crafts community in general, talks of his pathetic plight. Post monsoon, his home is without a roof and he has been without an income since the Covid-19 lockdown. A potter by birth, he has carried on the creative parampara that the Government of India is supposedly promoting through smartly named schemes such as Usttad or even the ‘Guru Shishya Parampara Scheme’ through Zonal Cultural Centres amongst others. The smarter the names the more ridiculous the outcomes because both access to the schemes and their reach are grossly limited by the incompetence of those who prepare them.

Over the years, the Indian bureaucracy has mastered the art of exclusion while swearing by inclusivity. This holds good not just for the artisans, whose numbers are expected to be around 17 million (that must surely be a gross underestimation) but for all segments of the dispossessed or vulnerable. Some are excluded on the basis of their gender, others because of their age, yet others because of their profession and even others because of the category of working class they fall under ~ the migrant labour for example ~ who are invariably hurt much more than the more competently abled. Such competence is often determined by being the right age, the right sex, at the right place, with the right connections and with skills currently in demand. A first class teacher, hitherto making a decent living from private tuitions, will starve under lockdown conditions; a bike-riding youngster with scant education, will find ready employment in the food delivering space.

Policy-making is about ensuring that policy measures impact people favourably or at least do not impact the economically or otherwise handicapped unfavourably, which is a principle that is observed in its absence. Matters get worse under straitened conditions. The Indian economy, reeling under the lockdown pressures, amongst others, has shrunk nearly 24 per cent in the first quarter of the current financial year. China posted a 3.2 per cent growth and while taking China on, on several fronts, it may be worthwhile for our blueprint makers to look at what China is doing right. It is the apparently utter cluelessness that is worrying for a populace that is expecting good news just around the corner. That hope is belied as the fiscal deficit Rs 8.2 lakh crore and revenues of the exchequer go southwards and there is no idea of how a much talked about stimulus will work; not for the many small businesses that form the backbone of Indian manufacturing and indeed keep the entire system running; nor for most other segments in need. Corporate needs are, of course, being addressed because they are India’s big-ticket performers.

On paper even the micro enterprises are being addressed. There are 63 million micro enterprises in the country that form a part of the bigger MSME universe that has 90.19 lakh registered units. The actual numbers may be much more but, officially, the space employs upwards of 110 million people and contributes 29 per cent of India’s gross domestic product. It also accounts for almost half of its exports, 48 per cent to go by recent calculations. Yet, this entire space is in a chasm of horrendous proportions with 99 per cent of its constituents in the micro enterprise space. They have little access to help. For starters the help on offer is found wanting both in quantity and quality and, worse, the beneficiaries have little clue about them, which means a denial of access.

What about the other sectors in the vulnerable space? The senior citizens; indigent women, farmers or migrants each of which accounts for upwards of 100 million people? The agriculture sector employs around 52 per cent of the total workforce, migrant workers comprise around 20 per cent of the workforce and should account for upwards of 100 million people; India’s elderly are estimated to number around 104 million and expected to increase to 173 million by 2026. The bureaucracy has, of course, made it to global case studies on how not to treat migrants at a time of crisis with little evidence of regret or admission of policy failure when even in June, migrant workers remained stranded. Nor is there any plan for a way forward to get them back into employment. What about our indigent female population? Forget the more than five lakh female foetuses that have gone missing in under a decade because of sex selection that, incidentally, is banned in India. India’s gender statistics (48.03 per cent of the population is female) are appalling and apply virtually to the entire space. At least 50 million women live below the poverty line and even those just above it are in an extremely indigent state of being. Matters are made worse courtesy violence and abuse in various forms which the laws of the land can do little to help, again given the lack of access. India’s fairer sex is in a sorrier global ecosystem in which 500 million women and girls live in extreme poverty that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. There are pits of despair and bottomless pits of despair, multitudes of women in farming are almost a non-existent cohort. The pronoun for a farmer is “he”. Probably the worst off amongst the fairer sex is that lot about to bring new life to the world have been facing in India, with a 50 per cent drop in institutional deliveries and those with no access to them even in better times deprived of services of even a midwife.

What about India’s senior citizenry? The impoverished amongst the old are a forsaken lot with little access to food and healthcare but even the senior citizen who has thus far managed to get by on savings and a frugal lifestyle is served with a double whammy of rising costs and diminishing returns from investments, fostered by the current dispensation. Things looked so bleak for them that on 4 August 2020, the Supreme Court of India delivered itself of a direction enjoining the Centre to ensure that senior citizens were well taken care of during the Covid-19 pandemic with regular payment of pensions and given medicines, masks, sanitizers and other essential goods. Given the vulnerability of this fixed income segment, it was inexplicable how the government chose to slash small savings schemes rates by 0.7-1.40 per cent, for instance, for Q1 of FY 2020-21.

Had it continued in this maverick fashion and cut rates for this quarter as well, as was definitely being considered, the PPF would have fetched returns below the seven per cent mark, which would be a 46-year low. Fortunately, good sense has prevailed and the government has kept the interest rates on small savings schemes or post office schemes unchanged for the JulySeptember quarter of FY 2020-21. The slashing of EPF rates for 2020-21 is yet another blow across the board. Meanwhile, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) cutting key rates over the past year or so has induced banks to reduce interest rates on fixed deposits. Not that it has passed on the full benefits to borrowers, it has only increased the bank’s margins at the cost of depositors. Indeed, according to one analysis, interest on savings from some riskier small finance banks and smaller private sector banks have been known to be higher than the fixed deposit rates offered by the PSU banks and bigger private sector banks. The danger in this is that it is pushing senior citizens, sometimes desperate for higher returns to avenues fraught with risks.

Finally, what about the farmer? The pandemic has taken the wind out of the sail of the farming community that was closing ranks and becoming vociferous about its many vulnerabilities amidst the government talk of doubling farm incomes while driving them down consistently, all the time. Thanks to the adverse impact of even non-farm related policy measures the bureaucracy chooses to remain in the dark about the bottomline impact of its decisions. An interesting analysis from the chairman of the Bharat Krishak Samaj is indicative of the state of affairs in many beneficial programmes if only someone reads between the lines and joins the dots. Under the PM Kisan scheme every landowning farmer (landless are excluded) receives Rs 6,000 a month. Now read this benefit along with a cost imposed on the farmer (in Punjab) growing a combination of paddy and wheat and using 80 litres of diesel. Each litre of diesel fetches a tax of Rs 45 for the exchequer and even, if one were, for the sake of this argument, to reduce the average diesel consumption by half, to 40 litres, the government is virtually collecting Rs 1,800 per acre tax from farmers. A small five-acre farmer could actually be paying about Rs 9,000 as diesel tax, which is more than the largesse received.