On August 5, India will inaugurate a further phase in COVID-19 lock-lift. Gyms will open. And yoga centers and cafés. Air travel restrictions that came into place on March 25, will further ease. Limited air travel had come into force in May. International flights will resume on August 31.
Days after the Home Ministry issued a press release to announce the good news, its boss, Amit Shah reported COVID positive. He is now in hospital. Last fortnight saw many rich, famous, and the powerful turn rather cheerful corona patients.
They included actor, Amitabh Bachchan, Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, and Karnataka chief minister, B. S. Yediyurappa. Masks, sanitisation, and seclusion seem of no great importance in the corona-scheme of things. Post-August 5, therefore, the chances are that India will see a spike in Corona numbers.
As India emerges from COVID-19 lockdown, the one unchanging fact staring the country in the face then is that it substantively has not changed. That’s why India is rearing to go back to where it started from as if nothing has happened; the general idea remains: to pick up from where it left off
As this story goes to press, over 35,000 COVID-19 deaths have occurred in India in the last six months. This is terrible, of course. But the fact also seems to be that the coronavirus is killing people who are already dying; the virus is a serial killer seeking out those who already suffer from co-morbidities, and administering the final blow, as in a culling process.
But to put it in perspective. In India, the annual average cancer death incidence is much higher. Last year, close to 8 lakh died of cancer. Yet, India doesn’t accord it the status of a pandemic.
The Corona psychosis, unlike the more lethal cancer or heart-related, and other lifestyle diseases, has crippled the Indian economy and inflicted damages disproportionate to its impact.
A shrunk economy
According to reports, the Indian economy in the first quarter (April to June) of this year shrunk by 25% because of minimal consumption and even less investment.
It is an indication of how sentiments and feelings can steal a whole lot of your savings. In fact, in a policy review, Michael Patra, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India, said the damage is so deep that, ‘India’s potential output has been pushed down, and it will take years to repair.’
The latest lock-lift phase seeks to address the slide. But it is not quite clear how. In May, the finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, had announced a Rs20 lakh crore package to fire the economy. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, had with evangelistic fervour turned it into a Good News occasion, and gone on air to milk a miracle from the moment.
It is not clear yet how that package has actually worked. The government had also announced a moratorium on bank EMIs and credit card payments until August. All this is up for review.
Contrary to the nationalist narrative now dominating India that it is a potential super-power, in real terms, it is anything but. COVID-19 has shown India its place. This month will be a test for the Indian economy. So far its captains have got away with making feel-good noises and contributing to the PM-Cares relief funds.
There has been no real strategic input from corporate India. The poverty of the imagination of India’s corporate captains has been stark and staring.
73rd Independence Day
August 15 marks India’s 73rd Independence Day. It should be ideally observed as a Crisis Management day. Never has India faced a future so bleak. Last fortnight, Modi went on air again to say India is a good place for global investment.
And that space research, defence, and agriculture are opening up for global players. It seemed more like a cry in the wilderness than an incentivised invitation.
Despite neighbour China’s increasingly pariah status in the international theatre, India has made very little progress — with the notable exception of investments in Mukesh Ambani’s communications business — as a business destination.
As India prepares for the 73rd Independence Day in the context of easing lockdown restrictions, so much seems to have changed. And so little. India has become an online, homebound economy.
A kind of cottage economy, one that Mahatma Gandhi would happily advocate. But India’s ambition is to be a superpower. That ambition is part of the problem. Sweden for instance does not want that status, and it is doing pretty well by all indications.
We Indians are temperamentally suited for a little more than a subsistence economy. In a humble country, this actually might be a good, sustainable idea. But no. Indians are brainwashed to profiteer.
As India emerges from COVID-19 lockdown, the one unchanging fact staring the country in the face then is that it substantively has not changed. That’s why India is rearing to go back to where it started from as if nothing has happened; the general idea remains: to pick up from where it left off.
That is not such a good place to go back to, really. All it got us was a mask, a handy thing at all times. The coronavirus death toll may be just about coming under control, but the more serious cancers continue to rage.
—C. P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.