A budget re-assembled by an economic package and a crucial policy declaration crucial with privatisation and centralisation of power – these are the three components that make up the declarations of central finance minister Nirmala Sitaraman made in five installments. All the items of the package look like a collective one that can be compressed into a one-day declaration. There are criticisms already in the air that most of it is loan schemes and those that had already been announced. And it is a reasonable reproach that the way to rescue people totally shattered is not by extending loans.
Nevertheless, it contains some wise decisions too, for example the provision to give an additional Rs 40,000 Cr for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation scheme (MGNREGA) to migrant labourers returning to their home states. This is in addition to the earlier allocated Rs 61,000 Cr. There is also a decision to bolster the nation-wide health security machinery and to set up laboratories to prevent epidemics. Further, there will be increased spending in health sector.
Another welcome step is to provide free food supplies to inter-state labourers for two months. Small and medium enterprises will get some relief, although as loan. The minister has also issued some admonition to observe in life in the coming post-Covid era. But the cost of most of them is to be met by the states. It is not clear why in this hard time the minister is not prepared to put money diretly into the hands of the poor who are returning to their homes jobless. It is imperative that in such an exigency they get aid in cash. For the stimulation of the economy too, it is necesssary to strengthen their purchasing power. And that has to be delivered to the poor not as loan but as cash which they can call their own.
A fact that cannot be lost sight of is that the pronouncements of the finance minister are capable of rejigging the central budget substantially. Given the fact that the government is in such a state that even for disease prevention it has to avail a loan of Rs 10,000 Crore from Asian Development Bank, it is unclear how the government will mobilise the funds required for the extra expenditure involved. It is another failing of the package that such a major reshuffle of the budget – especially when it entails an added element of privatisation – has not been subjected to parliamentary review. Consolation can come only from the fact that if the concessions to the industrial-corporate sectors will benefit the economy in general, so much can be welcome.
However, throwing open all sectors to the private players and limiting the role of the public sector to a select few domains, are moves with far-reaching implications. And that bristles with issues which need to be seriously debated in parliament and across the public. There is also a discernible tendency to make privatisation a condition for the aid given by the Centre to the states. It is quite a paradoxical that the very time of corona crisis is being used as an opportunity to impose profit-driven capitalism in toto, which has proven its failure during the same crisis. Thus, it needs to be said that the swadeshi bias and 'Make in India' slogan are templates got ready for the corporates. America vouches for the fact that the major block to facing disasters is that the government has withdrawn from all sectors. It is not coincidental that all health care developments in India too are linked to insurance, modelled on the US. In a way that reveals the point in the finance minister's statement "we are using this crisis as an opportunity".
Naomi Klein had written two decades ago about the capitalist method of using crisis as a means of exploitation. Policies and actions that the people will resist during normal times will be accepted amidst their helplessness in a crisis. It is in this manner, which she calls 'disaster capitalism', that neo-liberal policies came to be adopted the world over. We see it now in the Covid phase too in different countries: Benjamin Netanyahu, beleagurered by corruption charges, made Covid an excuse to neutralise the judiciary and defer his trial indefinitely; and made it the grounds for not holding the new parliament session. In Hungary and the Philippines, the justification for crushing democracy is Covid. In Chile, dissent has been suppressed by declaring a state of disaster. And now in India, the completion of privatisation including the defence sector, is making an entry clothed in Covid package. Signs of centralisation of power, neutralising parliamentary democracy and weakening of federal set-up can be gleaned as hidden between the lines in the economic package of Nirmala Sitaraman. It is an honest statement she made that the crisis is being made an opportunity.