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COVID 19 relief measures: The time to strategise is past, it is time to open fire

COVID-19 relief measures: The time to strategise is past, it is time to open fire

COVID-19 relief measures: The time to strategise is past, it is time to open fire
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By Arvind Sukumar  May 7, 2020 8:41:47 PM IST (Updated)

“You’re not a wartime consigliere, Tom,” Michael Corleone’s sharp criticism of Tom Hagen in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” could fit the government’s special COVID-19 Economic Recovery Task Force set up under Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

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The Prime Minister has ordered the nation to the mattresses in the battle against the novel coronavirus, but the promised arms and supplies have not materialised so far. For over 40 days, the economic task force has reportedly met numerous times. Its members, along with the PM and other members of his cabinet, have “taken stock” of the situation multiple times. And every time, the message has been the same: hang in there, help is coming. Sadly, not much has.
Early on, the task force announced food and some money for the poor. It also came up with deferrals and timeline extensions for tax assesses.
So what if the measures were flimsy? Many saw them as a precursor to heavy duty relief measures for the broader economy. As closer scrutiny revealed, many of the measures were more of front-loading what was any way to be given out over the course of the year. There was nothing new. There was nothing bold.
More was promised. We’re still waiting.
Almost every week, if not more frequently, the generals have held meetings and discussions. Tantalizing hints have been dropped about the next big edition of the stimulus package. But these have been hints that whet the appetite, while simultaneously tempering expectations: “We have to cut our suit to fit the cloth,” “any measures will have to be calibrated” and “we should not compare ourselves to the US and Japan”.
This explains why India’s package so far (including the massive liquidity push from RBI to buttress the banking and NBFC sectors) only amount to around 3 percent of the GDP, when stimulus and stabilization measures announced by the UK and Germany stand at over 20 percent of their respective GDPs, and those by the US and Singapore work out to 15 percent of theirs. Experts, many of them affiliated to the government, have been calling for measures that amount to at least 6 percent of India’s GDP; but the task force has been eerily silent of late.
The nationwide lockdown has been extended twice now, and before the last extension, indications from the North Block were that an economic stimulus package would be announced only after the lockdown was lifted. There’s no guarantee this will happen on May 17. It’s even looking quite certain that the exit strategy will not have national hues. So the task force has more time to put a workable and effective package together.
The latest update is that the minds designing the stimulus measures are working to “factor in uncertainty and an evolving situation”. The problem, of course, is that for all intents and purposes this situation is so amorphous and fluid that the exercise will naturally be Sisyphean. The other indication is that relief measures will be staggered and not en masse.
Meanwhile, the blows are landing hard and fast.
As the nation waits for the government to cough up (pardon the seemingly tasteless pun) the economic stimulus package, India’s manufacturing sector registered its largest month-on-month drop in April as it fell to 27.4 from 51.8 in March; its services sector has come to a virtual standstill, with Services PMI coming in at 5.4 in April against 49.3 in March. Core sector output has contracted by a sharp 6.5 percent in March. Direct tax collections are learnt to have come in Rs 1.2 lakh crores short of the FY20 target, and GST collections for March (collected in April) have come in at an abysmally low Rs 61,500 crores. All this, even as experts predict the Indian economy contracting in both the last quarter of FY20 and the first quarter of FY21, with extremely low growth predicted in the subsequent quarters.
Medically, India’s COVID-19 tally, which was at around 260 when the lockdown was first announced, has now risen to over 50,000. The jury is still out on whether the lockdown has worked to flatten the curve. The government’s official stance is that is has helped, because the doubling rate has climbed above 21 days, there’s (still) no evidence of community transmission, India’s recovery rate is at 25 percent, and its mortality rate from the outbreak is under 4 percent (even if one ignores the fact that most of these deaths were the result of co-morbidities, and not the virus itself).
The overarching belief among scientists and medical professionals, however, is that the virus will not go silent into the night. States like Telangana and Maharashtra are talking of extending lockdowns and restrictions, because the rate of new infections is, as one official put it, “alarming.” Mumbai has around 30,000 beds dedicated to the treatment of COVID-19, and is preparing to get this number to 75,000 before May is out. Make no mistake, the novel coronavirus is here to stay, and a second wave is almost a certainty.
This only makes it more imperative that the Prime Minister and his team listen to those experts who advocate immediate action in this battle against an invisible, self-replicating assassin, even if that advice is not what they want to hear. Else -- and to borrow from The Godfather again -- we’ll be sleeping with the fishes well before the war begins.
India needs a wartime consigliere now more than ever. It’s time the Finance Minister’s Task Force shows us it can be that consigliere. Forty days of grace have been used up, there may be precious little left. The enemy is at the gates and the ramparts are shaking and bloody.
The time for strategy and the moving of hypothetical chess pieces is past. It’s time to fire… and make every shot count.
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