The lockdown in India just got extended to May 3, making this first phase 40 days long. This is one of the most stringent lockdowns globally. In an international comparison of 73 countries, including countries much worse affected by Covid-19, India gets the maximum score of 100 on stringency. Another international comparison reveals that while India is very high on stringency, it is spending barely 1% of GDP on safety net policies.

We don’t know the future trajectory of the disease in India (different models give estimates at variance with one another), but there are some undisputed facts. We know that the pandemic is deadly and it needs to be contained. We know that it will be at least 18 months before a vaccine is developed, close to two years before it can be scaled up. In the meanwhile, lockdowns only halt the spread of the disease, not eliminate it.

For millions of Indian families, this extension of the stringent lockdown, without any safety net measures, means that the uncertainty and anxiety about their next meal just got prolonged indefinitely. Their next meal is not only related to the freedom to move about, but also crucially, on them having an income.

Not surprisingly, there was a huge surge of migrants at Surat and Mumbai following the Prime Minister’s announcement, wanting to get home. A repeat of the earlier harrowing images of migrants on their long march home, some “lucky” to have made it back under extreme hardship, others detained at various places away from home. We had argued, in the early days of the lockdown, that governments must be prepared to announce concrete measures in advance of a lockdown to prevent the scenes of chaos, panic and anxiety that we have witnessed recently.

Unfortunately, the evidence so far is not very promising, and our early fears seem to have been borne out by evidence. Various surveys have captured multiple dimensions of economic hardships, but most of all, the evidence so far seems to be that the most vulnerable are either unaware of their entitlements, or are on the brink of starvation, as they have not received the benefits they are entitled to.

Policies need to be pre-announced

One of the defining aspects of the global pandemic is the fundamental uncertainty associated with it. In these difficult times, it is even more important that government not add further uncertainty. When we wrote this first, it seemed obvious, almost trite, but given that this is consistently missing from policy announcements at the national level, we feel compelled to repeat that there must be a pre-established, forward-looking policy framework in place that commits to providing a safety net to vulnerable people.

Policy needs to take a comprehensive view of the vulnerabilities, both material and psychological, that vast sections of the population will be exposed to in the event of repeated lockdowns. As debilitating as the material consequences of scarcity are, equally striking are the psychological damages that it produces.

People in Surat line up to receive food being distributed by volunteers. Credit: PTI

With this in mind, we have proposed a comprehensive approach with a combination of cash support and in-kind transfers during any lockdown that takes place over the next 24 months.

The implementation of these policies requires coordination across multiple levels of government. We have recommended that a robust institutional infrastructure be put in place in order to manage government responses not just to the current pandemic, but to any future pandemics. This also requires true federalism, where needs of various states are assessed objectively, and not with reference to their political affiliation.

Indeed, in sharp contrast to the Central government, some states have shown remarkable vision in tackling with this massive crisis, which has been challenging as they have been working under serious financial constraints, with virtually no help from the Centre. The Kerala Model has shown exemplary success in flattening the curve with aggressive testing, contact tracing, and a slew of safety net measures, including delivery of cooked meals to make sure nobody starves. Odisha, another success story, shows how cash can be distributed without the poor being made to go banks or depend on the whims of banking correspondents.

Key recommendations

There is a range of suggestions – Personal Protection Equipment for frontline health workers, quarantine facilities, using panchayats for service delivery etc., delivery of food and other essential goods – which we fully support. We outline our key recommendations for a long-term strategy.

Our most important recommendation is that there is no alternative to a combination of cash and in-kind transfers: cash is needed to take care of non-food purchases. The cash and in-kind transfers work as complements and not as substitutes, as lockdowns are often accompanied by hoarding, disruptions in supply chains and price fluctuations. In order to ensure that these transfers actually provide relief to people, we also emphasise the importance of managing supply chains to maintain the flow of essential commodities.

The Public Distribution System needs to be made universal and the role of PDS shops needs to be expanded: in addition to cereals and pulses, vegetables like potatoes, onions, tomatoes and salt that are essentials for Indian households should also be made available through fair price shops, if possible, at reduced rates. Wherever traveling to Public Distribution System shops is difficult (for example, during a strict lockdown), PDS trucks should be made available for doorstep delivery.

The current model of aggregated mandis needs to be reshaped with trucks arriving at various smaller multiple sites to offload supplies. There could be mandated restrictions on the number of trucks allowed at a site to avoid overcrowding. The Covid-19 testing protocol should be expanded to include workers involved in the supply of essential goods, who are at a high risk of contracting the virus and must be regularly checked to minimise community transmission.

Are these measures affordable? Given that we are barely spending 1% of GDP, of course, yes. When the economy is barely functional, feeding people and gradually raising demand is top priority. We recommend that the government should spend 5%-6 % of the GDP to provide safety nets and to kickstart economic activity.

The family of a migrant worker in Ghaziabad shelters in a pipe along a highway as they wait to board their bus to return to their village. Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Research shows that post-natal care is critical to long term health outcomes of children and access to health care centers for pregnant women has emerged as a key concern in rural areas during the lockdown as few transportation modes are available. Health teams at block level, which respond to the needs of pregnant women, must be formed and ambulances with trained staff to transport them to nearby health centers should be permanently stationed.

Early childhood malnutrition is already a rampant health problem in India with lasting impacts on individuals throughout their life. Steps must be taken to ensure that children are able to access nutritious meals during this period. Another concern is reduced access to contraceptives due to the shutting down of condom manufacturing units. Previous research has found that natural disasters have led to significant increases in childbirth rates, leading to significant challenges such as reduced investments in children, particularly girls, and adverse effects on women’s health.

An even more direct risk to women’s lives is through an increase in domestic and intimate partner violence during lockdowns. Reaching women in distress needs to be classified as an essential service, to be treated with the highest urgency by the police.

The pandemic has seen ugly, vicious expressions of racist and communal hatred, in the spread of which mainstream media has taken an active part. Government machinery, particularly the police, must be actively vigilant to prevent discrimination and ensure that relief, assistance and materials reach everyone, irrespective of their caste, religion, or tribal status.

Then pandemic will abate one day, but if it leaves behind a large population that is unhealthy because of being deprived of minimum subsistence, it will adversely impact India’s growth potential for several years to come. If unbridled bigotry is allowed to flourish under the “new normal”, the resulting discrimination will result in large parts of India’s vast reservoir of labour under-utilised and incorrectly rewarded.

As we battle a grave health and economic crisis, we need to put humanity centrestage. That is the only way to devise a long-term policy framework directed towards alleviating human suffering, especially of the most vulnerable.

The authors of this article work with the Department of Economics, Ashoka University, and the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis, Ashoka University.

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