A path to uncertainty
The support offered by the Centre in its guidelines and stimulus package does not adequately provide comfort and direction to a faltering economy and panicked populace
The present context of the Coronavirus scenario is aptly framed by the first stanza of the poem The Pillar of the Cloud written by an English theologian and poet, John Henry Newman, two centuries ago. He wrote: Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, I do not ask to see the distant scene, one step enough for me.
PM Narendra Modi's appeal in his first address to the nation after the Corona outbreak, giving a call for peoples' curfew was followed by one and all. Later, his call for a complete lockdown of the entire nation for the 21 days beginning on March 24 was also a total success despite no exit plan and no strategy to live with the Coronavirus.
Later on, time and again, lockdowns were extended. However, on the other hand, one after another, trains are being run, flights are on, liquor shops are opened, an unscientific zonal system is being observed and many more deviations are in effect. The strategy of states on lockdown depends on the stance that the Centre takes.
Recently, PM Modi held yet another video conference with the CMs on May 11. There was no official communique from the Government of India as to what had transpired, what were the consensus points and where they differed. It would have been better had the Union Government taken people into confidence. However, CMs like KCR of Telangana and Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal came out with their statements after the conference.
KCR urged the PM not to revive the passenger train services which were halted as part of preventive measures to contain the spread of Coronavirus. He said that the Coronavirus's effect is most severe in metro cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad and if there is movement from these places, it would be difficult to contain the spread. The CM, pointing out that the pandemic had impacted the economy, leaving behind little to no revenue stream, vehemently suggested that loans taken by states should be rescheduled and FRBM limits should be enhanced.
KCR's statement went on to say that this contagion is one that people will have to live with for some time and leaders should light the way forward for their citizens. First of all, we should remove fear about the Coronavirus amongst the people. Another suggestion was that the lockdown regulations should be strictly implemented in the containment zones.
PM Modi addressed the nation once again on May 12. Labelling the Coronavirus crisis as unprecedented, he envisaged a self-reliant India which will stand on five pillars viz., economy, infrastructure, system, vibrant demography and demand. Then he announced a special economic package to achieve an 'Atmanirbhar Bharat' or 'self-reliant India', to the tune of Rs 20 lakh crore, which is equivalent to almost 10 per cent of India's GDP. The Prime Minister said that the package will focus on empowering the poor, labourers, migrants, etc., both from the organised and unorganised sectors.
Meanwhile, Union Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman's five-day serial announcements commenced the following day after the PM spoke to the nation.
On the first day, FM announced measures in an apparent bid to help businesses, including micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), recover from the economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic as part of the package announced by PM. The next day, she announced a Rs 3.16 lakh crore package of free food grains for migrant workers, concessional credit to farmers and working capital loan for street vendors as part of the second tranche of fiscal stimulus to heal the economy.
The third day, measures to strengthen agriculture infrastructure logistics, capacity building, governance and administrative reforms for agriculture, fisheries and food processing sectors were announced. Day four was devoted to structural reforms in coal, minerals, defence, civil aviation, power distribution, social infrastructure, space and atomic energy. The fifth and last day, the announcements made focused on seven steps, namely, MGNREGS, health, education, business and COVID-19, decriminalisation of 'Companies Act', ease of doing business, public sector enterprises and support to state governments.
The Finance Minister, with some riders, raised hopes in states by increasing borrowing limits. She announced that, given the unprecedented situation, Centre has decided to accede to the request of states and increase the borrowing limits of states from 3 per cent to 5 per cent for 2020-21 only, enabling states to avail an extra Rs 4.28 lakh crore. However, the rider is that part of the borrowing by states will be linked to specific reforms. From 3-3.5 per cent, 0.5 per cent will be an unconditional increase. Next, 1 per cent is to be released in 4 tranches of 0.25 per cent, with each tranche linked to specified, measurable and feasible reform actions. An additional 0.5 per cent will be given if milestones are achieved in at least three out of the four reform areas.
The revenue surplus states like Gujarat and Telangana were already having an extended unconditional FRBM of up to 3.5 per cent of GSDP. The current increase of up to 3.5 per cent for Telangana is no additional benefit. Furthermore, the conditional increase of FRBM from 3.5 to 4.5 per cent loan limit offered to states is against the federal spirit. This is more of an eyewash as only 0.5 per cent is unconditional and the rest is conditional on a state achieving certain measures which are near impossible to achieve in a critical year like this.
An entrepreneur, expressing great dismay, described the package as a joke on the Indian economy and all Indians. According to him, self-reliance does not mean an entrepreneur surviving on loans, increasing liabilities, saving less and eating out of the safety net so that the Government can claim it as its support.
GOI tried to make up the total to over Rs 20 lakh crore. Much of this money will flow through the banks through loans to MSMEs, agriculture, industries, etc. There is likely to be some doubling in counting. The package offering to the states is very disappointing. Support in critical sectors like health is minimal. There is no provision for direct financial support to the states. The amount allocated to states is just a little over Rs 4,000 crore!
Confidence building is an art, a science and a quality of leadership and motivation. People expect guidance and comfort in times of crisis and that is the meaning of Lead, Kindly Light in the words of John Henry Newman. Lead, kindly light, Modiji.
The writer is Chief Public Relations Officer to Chief Minister of Telangana. Views expressed are strictly personal