Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Federal Bank MD & CEO Shyam Srinivasan's Interview

Dreaming Bigger Now, to be the First Choice Bank

How well each organization is going to perform in the post-Covid world may feel like a mystery, but to a large extent will be determined by how well they were running in the pre-Covid era. Coming to the banking sector, the performance metrics may seem to be all in hard numbers, but in reality is much more, having to do with prudent policies and relationships with each and every customer. This is an area where Shyam Srinivasan led Federal Bank is likely to show much resilience in the coming quarters and years. The 89 year old bank has seen and survived too many economic and political upheavals, including World War II, Indian Independence, Indo-Pak wars, Indo-China war, Bank Nationalization, Gulf War, Economic Liberalization, Dotcom Burst, Kargil War and Global Economic Crisis -  to be fazed by the current pandemic, the lingering effects of the lockdown and the current standoff with China. Even during the last decade, which was one of the toughest for the Indian banking system, Federal Bank swam against the current to emerge as a bank of relevance across India, from being a regional bank focused on Kerala. Even during the current crisis, which is truly unprecedented in modern human history, Federal Bank is staying focused on growing those strengths which are relevant now in this crisis. For instance, on the deposits front, it is doing extremely well thanks to its leadership in overseas remittances and the spike in inflows due to the temporary return of NRIs and the strong rupee. And on the credit side, it is a leading player in the gold loans business, which is witnessing robust growth in this current crisis as the product of choice of both lenders and creditors. At the same time, its extreme prudence or conservative stance in risky products like personal loans, even during boom periods, is now helping the bank in its maintaining its asset quality. At no point in time has Federal Bank crossed a Gross NPA level of 3%, which is admirable in a country where the banking system NPAs have crossed 10%. The bank is a leader in digital initiatives and technology adoption and now excels in areas like digital origination and has implemented EMI products on Amazon’s e-commerce platform. Seasonal Magazine recently caught up with Shyam Srinivasan for a freewheeling video interview, where he talked about the bank’s various strategies as well his suggestions for reviving the economy. The bank which progressed much on his last year’s strategies of ‘Presence to Prominence’ in key geographies and ‘Prominence to Dominance’ in its home market of Kerala, has added a new vision this year, to emerge as the ‘First Choice’ bank for customers by doing every service in a distinguished way.  On the economic front, this veteran banker strongly feels that the banks are flush with funds now and if there is a demand stimulus to excite the private sector and consumers, growth will come back in India.    

Federal Bank could wind up FY’20 on a good note. Despite the marked economic slowdown in the country during the past few quarters and despite the gathering Covid clouds during much of February and March, the bank’s Q4 saw operating profits surging from low single digits during Q3 & Q2, to a healthy 27%. This shows that the bank’s long-term strategies have been working out well.

The performance was well rounded with both Net Interest Income (NII) and Other Income rising impressively. NII grew 10.90% to Rs. 1216.01 crore from Rs. 1096.53 crore in the corresponding quarter last year. The Kerala headquartered bank also made some smart moves on the Other Income front including the timely share sale in Yes Bank shares, that helped Other Income to surge 72.72% to Rs. 711.11 crore in the three months of Q4 from Rs. 411.72 crore a year ago.

The traditional private sector lender’s strategies in combating asset quality issues too are working out well. The fourth quarter saw asset quality improvement with Gross Non-performing Assets (GNPAs), falling to 2.84% from 2.99% in the December quarter and 2.92% in Q4 of last fiscal. Post-provision, the Net NPA (NNPA) ratio was at 1.31% against 1.63% in Q3 and 1.48% in the corresponding YoY quarter.

Despite being a traditional private sector lender, Federal Bank has to its credit one of the most extensive and up-to-date technology deployments, especially in retail banking. This has continued to help the bank perform well on the deposits front, where it clocked a robust 13% rise. This is impressive as the 89 year old bank is not competing head-on with newer and smaller banks on the deposit rates front, but rather leveraging the trust factor, long-term relationships and the conveniences it can offer through better technology deployment.

Even with such overall good performance, the bank saw a 21% dip in net profit during the quarter. Federal bank reported a net profit of Rs. 301.23 crore for the fourth quarter compared to Rs. 381.51 crore in the corresponding year-ago period. This was mainly due to surging provisions.

Provisions rose by more than three times to Rs. 567.50 crore, compared to Rs. 177.76 crore in the year-ago quarter. In the December quarter, the bank had set aside Rs. 160.86 crore in provisions. Like in most banks, the rise in provisions was led by pandemic concerns and Federal Bank made a Covid specific provision of Rs. 93 crore.

Post the moratorium of loans announced by the government, 35% of Federal Bank’s loan book is now under moratorium. While this is slightly higher than some of its peer banks, it reflects the kind of long-term relationships the bank has with its customers, and which it will continue to pursue.

While the trend in banking business has been to beef up provisions at the drop of a hat, Federal Bank has so far steered clear of this, applying provisions judiciously. Due to this, the bank’s Provision Coverage Ratio (PCR) may seem lower at 53.39% , compared to larger and aggressive new generation banks, but then Federal Bank has never been in the business of extending risky loans for pushing growth.

This is a distinction the bank will continue to adhere to according to MD & CEO Shyam Srinivasan, who confirms that the bank will never resort to any outrageous lending in the post-Covid scenario too.

The bank is on a reasonably strong wicket on the capital front. Its Capital Adequacy Ratio (CAR) stands at 14.35% which is comfortable enough to avoid any capital raising this year. Federal Bank’s focus this year will be on preserving capital and growing its deposits franchise further.

The bank has some unique strengths on the deposits front. Federal Bank is a leader in the country on the inbound remittances business with 15% market share. This is a significant business as India itself is number one in inbound remittances from worldwide, thanks to its huge expatriate population, which still cares for extended families back home.

While the remittance business is facing headwinds due to the pandemic, lockdown, salary cuts and job losses worldwide, Federal Bank is continuing to bet big on this business, as its long experience has taught the bank that this business always rebounds after crises like wars and economic setbacks.

With this insight in mind, during the lockdown itself, Federal Bank had tied up with US based world leader in remittances, MoneyGram, for cross-border direct-to-account transfers, thereby improving customer convenience. The appreciation of rupee vis-à-vis dollar and other major currencies also bodes well for this business.

On the loans front too, the bank has an ace up its sleeve. It is a leader in the gold loan business in the banking sector, unlike many of its peers who are only discovering or beefing up this business now. Federal Bank’s headquarters and significant footprint in Kerala is also helpful for this business, as Kerala has been a traditional stronghold of the gold loan business.

Federal Bank expects strong growth in gold loans this year, and unlike most other loans, its full secured nature due to pledged gold at an adequate margin of safety ensures that it won’t contribute to NPAs in the future. The rising gold prices also ensures that this business can also grow due to higher loans to existing customers, apart from wider customer acquisition. And unlike in earlier days, gold loans have been maturing from just for personal needs to being for small business needs.

The bank is also open to extending credit to select corporates and MSMEs, after due diligence. It is now in the process of tailoring specific cross-sell programmes to existing customers who have established track records. While it feels that the credit guarantee scheme is a good way to support MSME clients, it will also apply regular credit judgment before offering such credit.

In these tumultuous times, Federal Bank can also have leadership continuance if it so desires. Even with RBI's new proposal to limit tenure of bank CEOs, professional & non-promoter bank CEOs like Shyam Srinivasan, who has completed a decade, can still have longer tenures if needed. RBI move is to build a robust culture of sound governance and professional management.

Seasonal Magazine in conversation with Shyam Srinivasan, MD & CEO, of Federal Bank Ltd.

Can we start by asking about your bank's moratorium and where it stands now?

Roughly about 35%. That's what we had said when we finished our results. Yes, it is still at the same level. About 34-35% of the book is in moratorium. 

Do you think it is a wee bit more than peer banks maybe?

See the moratorium book heavily depends on what your overall portfolio is like. If you have, let's say, a very heavy gold loan business, then the moratorium - our gold loan moratorium is less than 3%. But the business banking is 79%. So you see a spectrum. So I think 30% is more or less the industry average, it won't be very different. And second, in moratorium, those banks that have given opt-in, versus those who have given an opt-out, experience is different. For business banking, we get an opt out, which means everybody gets it. If you don't want you can opt out. So the moratorium will be higher. For some businesses, we give opt in where it is less than 18%. So it's sort of wide range. 35% looks probably standard and banks would all be in the 30s percentile. Some are 38%, but broadly that's what it is. But the real picture will emerge only in September. After the moratorium period is over, that is, in September which is now the new 'March'. Because September is when you will do what you would have done in March. March is the month of moratorium. So you'd have to see how things are in September. 

You have already mentioned about another dimension which is the gold loan business. You have been very bullish on gold loan business now, 

 I remain very, very positive. It is doing well. And I think it will continue to do well for the foreseeable future. Both because there's a demand as gold prices are high. It's less cumbersome, it's easier for the bank and the customer. And I think slowly customers have understood that banks are good gold loan lenders now as for about four years earlier it was slow. I think it's coming back so we are quite happy with gold.

Can customers avail gold loans from you? Can they walk into the bank and become a customer?

Once they avail, they become customers. There is no limitation on that. I mean certainly we will try to cross sell other products but pure gold is fine as long as the gold is bonafide and it's not stolen gold. We're happy to do.

Where would you peg the growth approximately this quarter and this year on the gold loan business growth? Is it because there are not many other avenues apart from gold loans?

Last financial year, our YoY gold loan business grew 29%. I'm hoping it'll grow higher this year. As I said, it's a win win for both customer and us. We have innovated quite a bit on gold product, in the service and in the distribution. We have our digi-gold, which we had a few years ago. But we have revamped and launched it. So instead of keeping your gold in your own locker, keep it in the bank's locker. And you get an overdraft on it. So you only pay when you draw money, otherwise you don't pay. So it's a win win. We are seeing great success with the product. 

What about on the personal loan front before COVID-19? 

We were not very big on unsecured personal loans. We normally don't do new to bank. We do existing customers based on track record. For almost 18 months, we were doing it digitally. So if you had an account with us, based on your account behavior, we would offer a credit line which you can click on your phone and take the money. But now we are much more tighter on that. Because generally we don't do unsecured credit in a very big way. Our philosophy over many years has been to be more conservative, which is why our NPAs never cross 3%. Even when India's NPAs hovered around 10% mark, Federal Bank has never crossed 3%. Net NPAs never crossed 1.3% or 1.5% maximum. So we've been conservative and I'm happy to be conservative, which is the right thing for a bank.

How is the co-branding of credit cards going on now?

It's okay, but it's not a big part of our business. But in the course of this financial year, maybe by end of March next year, we will certainly have our own card launch. So, yes we are working on that.

What about Provision Coverage Ratio and where does the bank stand on that? Is it lower than other comparable peer banks?

Our coverage ratio including technically the "written-off" is 73%. Without technical, it is 54%. Last quarter we raised our coverage ratio by 800 basis points and we provided extra by 250 crores in Q4. You may have noticed, we provided access because we had some one time gains on investments in treasury and I put the entire money into provision. Otherwise our profits should have been another 200 crores higher. We didn't want to do that. Compared to peer banks, 70% is quite comparable. You must understand that provision cover is created to ensure that when, God forbid, there is a loss you have already provided so that it doesn't incrementally affect your book. Now each bank has a different product mix. If you're a very high unsecured portfolio or your security levels are low, you need very high coverage. When you have a high security, you need a lower coverage. In Federal Bank, we've been doing this reporting for two years based on Indian accounting standards or the new accounting standard - IFRS. Our loss given default, which means when you have a loss or an NPA, the maximum loss on that account if it's an unsecured one, it is hundred percent. Let's say you have a house of one crore and the loan is say 80 lakhs. Even the for-sale value of the security instead of one crore is 60 lakhs, you recover 60 and your loss is only 20 lakhs. So loss given default is only 20 lakhs. Our loss given default on the whole portfolio has never crossed 38%. When I have coverage ratio of 53%, I have much higher coverage than the losses I would ever incur. With all due respect, the media doesn't understand anything too much. They'll simply take one number and report. Provision cover is to make sure in the event of a loss you are covered right?When our provision coverage is 53 or 73%, depending on which number you pick, and the loss given default is 38%, you have excess coverage. I actually can release 15%. This quarter, we took it from 46 to 53% because we expected that in the COVID world, losses can go up & your security value may come down. So the house with just one crore may suddenly become 80 lakhs or 70 lakhs. That is why I said provide more so it gives us the cushion. At 53% loss cover, we are okay.

There was also a specific COVID-related provision of 93 crores. Do you think it is sufficient as of now?

See, COVID provision has to be seen along with credit provision. Both are the same. Just that COVID provision is not in the coverage ratio but treated as a standard provision. When, God forbid, an account becomes NPA, then you will take the COVID provision and put it in standard credit provision. The COVID provison is only an excess extra-provision created as a buffer. The requirement is only 31 crores. RBI mandate was 31% and we have provided three times this mandate. So, it is not an issue.

What has been the impact on remittance business?

Remittances are doing extremely well. Whenever Middle East has any challenges, for instance if people are relocating, they will bring the money in. And we are the best bank for that. Secondly, rupee is at 76. Again, people will send money. So at this point in time remittance is in very good shape. We'll see how the next six months go. We don't know what the situation will be in September or October. How the Middle East is going to be? How, you know, whether job losses are going to happen at big time? Now the good news is oil has become slightly stronger. So they may not be having as many job losses as it was visualized. I've seen that from the time of Kuwait war, we've looked at this whole remittance stuff and that this would drastically affect Kerala. In the last 10 years, I've seen it very closely. There will be some trouble. It was said that around six lakh people will come back but I think three lakh have come back or will come back. Suddenly around two lakh will go back. Maybe not go to the Middle East but places like UK or anywhere people will find livelihoods. But one lakh people coming back is something we can live with. We need to worry about what damage COVID would cause in the next one year. If we can deal with that damage, everything else can be solved. That is the unknown or the wild card.

This would also be translating into deposit growth?

Yeah, it will. In fact, we're sitting on excess liquidity. We are growing higher than the market but there's no market growth because demand has to come here. We'll take some time - another three, four or five months. See, everything has come back to about 75% of the original level if you look at all across the country. A number of RTGS transactions, NEFT transaction, Fast Track transactions, whatever you look, everything is between 65 to 75%. By September-October, it may come to 85%. Maybe by end of the year, it will come to 95-100%. But you are expecting 120% because you want it to grow. So, I think if by 2021, we'll be lucky if business volumes improve. See, one quarter is totally gone. First quarter was virtually no growth for anybody. Next quarter will be like 2-3% growth. So, the full year if you grow at 8-10%, you've done brilliantly.

You have been telling about some cross selling opportunities & how to tap the cross selling opportunities. Can you tell us some specific examples?

The whole personal loan book, which is almost 2000 crores, we did it only by digital origination on existing customers. So say you are a customer of Federal Bank - let us say a liability customer for two years. Based on your average balance, based on your usage, we do a lot of data mining. And we make a pre-approved offer to you and say here is a credit limit of 50,000 available. And you can click and take the money. Now we've launched this with Amazon and a few others. On EMI product, if you are a Federal Bank customer and you're shopping on Amazon, you put in your card number, it runs a back end engine and it immediately computes by saying whether we can give you an interest free EMI for 12 months. So if you buy 5000 rupees or 20,000 rupees on Amazon, instantly you can make it an EMI transaction. So you pay zero interest over 12 months. And this is all done by back-end analytics and therefore the cross sell is based on existing customer behavior with the bank. We are data mining and continuously making cross sell offers. Uusually if you're a card customer, you'll have a liability relationship, we give you an insurer and we'll give you the usual stuff. Basically, everything that is tried to increase penetration per customer.

You are now mulling a new fundraise of Rs. 12000 crore for equity component. Can you take us through the specifics of that? 

In the forthcoming AGM, we're looking to seek shareholder approval for getting a resolution passed. Once we have that, in the course of the next 12 months, we can raise equity, if we need. Right now, we're not looking at any capital raise. It's an enabling resolution. But since the AGM is coming in July 16, we will hopefully get the resolution approved by shareholders. And once that resolution is there, we'll see how the market goes and where the capital requirement is. In our mind, at least till March 2021, we don't need new money. But the next AGM is usually next time this period ie; June-July. So we are trying to get an approval in place so that whenever the need arises, or the next month we will raise money. Normally in my last 10 years, we raised money only once. We are not a bank that goes to the market every three months or three years. We go once in like five-seven years depending on when we need. The last time we raised money was in 2017 July at about 116 rupees. Today the stock is on 56-57 rupees. So suddenly the stock has had its own share of waiting. Hopefully we will come back to at least 100 bucks in the next one year, which is when we should raise money. Even last year we had approval of 8000 crores and we took 300 crores from the market. This was raised about 12 months back.

Any plans for acquiring any microfinance companies or any diversification?

Right now nothing on the horizon, but we are open to making acquisitions if something good comes up. But at this juncture, we cannot rush to anything because we have to see how the credit portfolios or everybody behaves. So, we will be watchful at least three-four months to understand the credit portfolio. So, we have nothing on the cards but continuing to do our basics right. We will wait till September, see how the market shapes up & how the moratorium customers are behaving. Only then we will think about next steps. Because this is very unpredictable environment. So we're not doing anything at this juncture. 

What is the status on the startup fund you had mooted?

I would say it has been very modest. The startup environment is facing a lot of changes and challenges. Either you make it very big with private equity support or you are not able to scale up and you're just folding up. The whole environment for startups is different from what it was three or four years back. So we are having fun but we have no major action going on. Along with two other funds, we have put in the money but that's not a core expertise of our bank. So we will let them do it but we are feeding into that.

You've been seeing how the economy has been shaping up over the last few quarters. Any suggestions or improvements required?

The main thing is that demand has to come back, right? There's a lot of liquidity. So that's not a problem. Banks have money and banks are willing to lend provided there is a demand. For the demand side, banks cannot do much. So it has to be a bunch of things like the government intervention, the private sector getting excited by the opportunity and beginning to invest. And to some extent, like you said, there is a fear also that people are nervous about what is going to happen in terms of health. So economic activity is not at full blast. But having said that, like I said, 70-75% has come back. Some of the bigger cities like Mumbai, Chennai are all still in very precaurious states. Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu has gone into very severe lockdown. While Mumbai & Delhi have opened up, unfortunately, they are facing extreme health issues and challenges today. Virtually, everybody we know has somebody who is faced with some challenge in Mumbai. To that extent, movement is still modest as people are quite watchful. So the full blast economic activity is at least six months away or till when one of these vaccines or medicines work. In that context, demand stimulus is the most important thing. But even if you give a lot of money, demand comes when people are feeling better. And you will not work to buy that extra shirt, pants, TV, fridge and car if you have little nervousness. Everybody's just buying essentials food and medicine. This is a psychological challenge more than financial challenge. So emotionally we have to be charged up. And that takes time. What will inspire people to spend more? Some confidence giving is required. The only good news in all this is if the stock market starts doing better. Psychologically, people will feel like okay thinking that the world has come back. For somebody holding a Reliance share, for him/her life is fine, right? In fact, it's doubled. The stock value has gone up twice. Unfortunately only when western India ie; Mumbai & Gujarat gets full blast, India will fire on all cylinders. Unfortunately that part of country still needs some more actual health related intervention. Demand generation happens in Maharashtra & Gujarat in a very big way. Having said that, I think rural India is doing better, farming and agri income will be better. So it won't be all bad news, but it will certainly not be what it should have been. You know, if we were expecting India to be, say, from 2.8 trillion to 3.2 trillion, it won't happen. It may become 2.5 trillion and then you have to work one more year because everything will get reset only by 18 months. And it goes back and then climbs back up. That's an unfortunate outcome of COVID-19 and I don't think anybody can escape it. So we just have to wear a wet towel around the stomach and sit quietly for a while (laughs).

What all are your new strategies for steering the bank in this tumultuous time?

Last year, we focused on two strategies, 'Presence to Prominence' in chosen geographies and 'Prominence to Dominance' in our home market. We have seen consistent gains and recorded a healthy increase in market share across key geographies and segments, and our visibility among the top quartile banks, both in terms of business and governance has amplified in the last financial year.  While these twin strategies will continue, we have added a new one this year, to be the ‘First Choice’ bank. Our bank has always been respected as a thought leader in customer-centric approach backed by relevant innovation. While we continue to be deeply rooted in our fundamentals, we realize it is time to dream bigger. The last decade saw us emerge from a regional player to a bank of relevance across India, and now we are determined to build ourselves to a bank that is First Choice. It is not just being the best in customer service and having the right set of products and processes; but being able to distinguish ourselves in everything that we are and do, be it products, processes, design, people and value creation. We are mindful that being the First Choice is a tall task. This is a pursuit of excellence and there would be no finish line until we become the most admired bank, digitally enabled and serving the micro, small and medium establishments in the country.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Seasonal Magazine's Interview with Mani Shankar Aiyar, Author, Politician & Former Diplomat



                                By Kuber Bathla


As issues of national importance remain unsolved due to a multitude of reasons, the pandemic hit the country when it was least ready for it. As the nation seeks solutions in the aspects of economy, policy, domestic as well as international affairs, the familiar voice of Mani Shankar Aiyar offers some insights. A veteran in the realms of politics and diplomacy, Aiyar has worked extensively in these fields and has frequently given his voice on issues that matter.

 

On the Indian economy, Aiyar believes that reducing the level of interdependence on other nations in the matters of trade will only affect the economy in a harmful manner. He does not put faith in the goal of Atma Nirbharta and believes that there are no concrete policies to back the Prime Minister’s claims. As the economy was already in a mess before the outbreak, it is important to have someone better at the helm to navigate through the crisis, he said. On the idea of labour laws being dismantled to encourage employment, Aiyar said that it is “not only a stupid proposition, but it’s also a cruel proposition”. He said that despite the low number of people who benefit from such laws, it is important that we do not sacrifice our democracy for a “perceived high rate of growth”.

 

The only way to deviate supply chains towards India is to have a very efficient policy- macro and micromanagement. This, coupled with a hope that Indian firms will create enough opportunities to become a better prospect of investment for the Americans, as compared to China. A part of instilling confidence in investors also lies in handling the migrant labour crisis in a better manner, something which the government has failed to do.

 

On the issues of foreign policy, Aiyar makes it quite clear that only a strong neighbourhood shall help India to have better relations with other nations that lie across the Pacific and the Atlantic. He says, “We ought to be evaluating our relationships with the United States on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other hand, on a completely fresh basis so that we go back to first principles of non-alignment”. He also blames Hindutva and the government’s pro-Hindu policies for being detrimental in the ailing relations with India’s arch-rival Pakistan. The goal is to be secular and remain true to the ideals envisioned by the founding fathers of the constitution.

 

Calling for a behavioural change on the part of the government in the healthcare sector, Aiyar said, “We are prioritizing defence, heavy investment, private sector, and not prioritizing the two sectors- health and education- that are aching for government intervention. And so long as investment in public goods is as low as they are, and so long as the Panchayats are not made an integral part of last-mile delivery of both education and health, I'm afraid we are going to continue to live with completely wrong priorities”.

 

Envisioning a strong opposition in the coming years, Aiyar believes that it is necessary for the Indian National Congress to create a public forum for ideas and discussions, so as to lead the party towards the right direction.


Seasonal Magazine’s Kuber Bathla speaks to Mani Shankar Aiyar in this wide-ranging interview:

 

How do you think, in the post-COVID age we can have prevention, self-reliance and globalisation on the same tangent?

 

MSA: I think that is a very overarching goal. We need to recover, economically. And to recover, we need ourselves and the world. I don’t see how by reducing the level of interdependence in the name of Atma Nirbharta, we can achieve the ultimate goal. So I think Mr Modi’s prescriptions are just rhetoric. There’s no logic of policy to them. Therefore, I see the recovery taking a very long time, and in any case, our economy was in a complete mess long before any of us had heard the word COVID. There were structural problems, particularly demand, that needed to be attended to, but the government was showing no inclination to do that, and was pushing ahead with its political agenda, which came a cropper in December, when all these protests broke out in 100 campuses in India and Shaheen Bagh, with maybe lakhs of imitations of Shaheen Bagh in the rest of the country. There has been no attention paid to economic issues since May last year, although it is these economic issues that have been dominant. So in the absence of a leadership that does understand economics, but is excellent at high-empty rhetoric, I am afraid I cannot see the way forward. I only hope that the inherent forces in our economy will help us recover.

 

Do you think that dismantling labour laws for rapid industrialization would lead to economic stability in the long run? (Given the context of Uttar Pradesh)

 

MSA: It’s not only a stupid proposition, but it’s also a cruel proposition. India has been a member of the ILO (International Labour Organization) since its inception in 1919, and has, among developing countries, the most advanced labour law. Now it’s true that only about 8% of our workforce, which is in the organized force, is able to avail of these advantages. But in reducing organized working force conditions, to those of unorganized working force conditions, I don’t see how there is any great economic benefit involved. Yes, perhaps we need to relax some of these laws, in view of the fact that India, in 2020, is no longer as poor as it was when I was your age. But nevertheless, having a decent wage and proper conditions for workers’ safety and for the safety of their employment are all necessary characteristics of a democracy. I don’t think we should be sacrificing democracy in the alter of a perceived high rate of growth. So what the UP Government has done is perhaps a trailer of what the Union government is going to do, and it’ll be a very sad day when we decide that the welfare of people like Modi and me is much more important than that of a migrant worker, who today is walking home because the government had a very sudden lockdown and made no arrangements for the disruption that it would cause.

 

Should India continue to spend resources outwards as there are many opportunities now? (in terms of investment, incentives, tax breaks, or the use of corporate diplomats- especially since China’s supply chain has been greatly affected and India can become the centre of the world's supply chain) Or should it focus inwards, given the crisis that the country is facing (in terms of low demand)? 

 

MSA: I think, to begin with, we should concentrate on mending our broken economy. That means, undertaking policies that will restore growth initially to the very low level at which it was before covid struck, and eventually getting back to the rates of growth that Manmohan Singh had engendered in our economy. And that requires very efficient policy- macro and micro-management- that has not been in evidence for the last six years. Therefore, I do not foresee a miracle that will teach people like Modi who never went to University, and Nirmala Sitharaman who may have got some degree in Jawaharlal Nehru University, but has displayed no economic expertise in her new capacity as the finance minister. I am very sceptical of the possibility of getting back to even December 2019, let alone to 2007, when we were growing at over 9%, and it was feasible to talk about us hitting 10%. Now unless we repair our broken Economy, all this wild talk about people taking investments out of China and bringing them to India is just daydreaming. There are many other economies, COVID affected, in south-east Asia particularly, where they can relocate and where the economy has not been broken, either pre-COVID or post-COVID. So I think instead of talking this kind of rhetoric, I am putting our hopes on Americans suddenly pulling out of China and desperately looking to go somewhere, and finding in India the golden opportunity. I think all this kind of rhetoric should be put to one side, and in a realistic manner we need to rebuild our economy and were we to ever get back to Manmohan Singh's 9% rate of growth, then automatically there will be a great deal of economic investment in India by those looking for alternative supply chains.

 

What kind of mechanisms do you think are necessary to instil confidence in investors that over medium term both fiscal as well as financial stability will be maintained?

 

MSA: I think you're going into a lot of jargon with that question. The most important thing is for the world to recognise that we are humane enough to look after millions upon millions who till yesterday were employed or self-employed and who today are struggling to get back to their villages, swearing that they'll never come back to the industrial centres of the country. In a country where the most important economic hubs are the most significant corona hubs, it is our metropolis that is really badly affected by the coronavirus, and Gujarat, for some strange reason, is showing a much higher level of corona infections and particularly deaths than any other state in India that is of comparable demography. So there is a lot to fix here, in terms of just pulling ourselves out of the abyss into which we've been pushed, instead of talking the kind of Language that is inherent in your question. Until we get back from the abyss unto the brink, I think it's absurd to look at the high mountains and say, 'One day I'll reach there'.

 

SAARC (or South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) has always been rendered as an ineffective organisation in the international domain, but its performance during COVID-19 has been impressive in terms of coordination and co-operation. What do you think should be the future of this organization, and India’s role in it?

 

MSA: Will you please tell me that apart from having a teleconference, that was widely publicized, what other steps have been taken? Yes, India has given small sums of money, and small amounts of assistance to our neighbours, but with Nepal, we've stoked a huge rumble, and we don't know what we're going to do about it. We've never in the Modi era been able to handle our relationship with Pakistan. Our relationship with China has been deteriorating. It had deteriorated with Bhutan, in the past, although I think the King has been very sensible in pulling back from deterioration. [With] Bangladesh, our relationship has wrecked, by this attempt at identifying Muslims as Bangladeshis and threatening to send them back. There's no great improvement in our relationship with Sri Lanka. In the Maldives, yes, things are better, but that's not because of us, that's because of the Maldivians, having got ridden of their previous government. So I see nothing in our South Asia policy, that could be called constructive. Therefore, by definition, SAARC, maybe, is a PR exercise. Mr Modi is much more an EM than a PM- is much more an Events Manager than a Prime Minister. And that is why we see this tattered South Asia policy, despite his having said, at the beginning of his tenure, 'Neighbours First'.

 

What do you think is the reason behind Western countries handling the crisis in a poor manner and the oriental nations doing relatively better? Does this indicate anything about the future of International Politics?

 

MSA: Well, I think as far as the Western world is concerned, we must distinguish between the United States and Europe. The United States is run by a man called Narendra Donald Trump, and he's made a complete mess of handling this whole crisis, and the only thing that he has achieved is 'Howdy, Modi!' and 'Howdy, Donald!'. I don't think this is the way to run foreign policy. We are at the most serious crisis in the identity of Asia in the last 70 years. The cold war was fought between the United States and the USSR, and then we were non-aligned. Now, a second cold war is starting up, particularly under Trump, and in that, we are getting increasingly aligned with the United States of America, and because we are in Asia and they're on the other side of the Pacific and the Atlantic, if the second cold war deteriorates into the third World war, then India will be Belgium, on whose soil the war will be fought. So instead of taking this moment to proclaim our friendship with the United States, especially in defence matters, at a time when there's a needless propagation given by the US to China and an equally needless reciprocation given by the Chinese, I think we ought to be adopting a Non-aligned posture, exactly as Europe's posture in the last couple of years is. Now I don't know if your viewers have followed what happened at the World Health Assembly, but at the WHA held only about two weeks ago, Donald Trump and through him his health secretary, had announced that they had a number of goals for the assembly. One was to get China condemned for what it had done- they failed miserably. The other was to get the Director-General of the WHO condemned- they failed miserably. And the third was to get Taiwan in with observer status so that they could caucus snook with the People's Republic of China, and on all three they failed- not because India said anything (India said nothing at all)- but it was the Europeans who tied up with the Chinese to refuse to be distracted from this pandemic by the domestic politics of the Republican frontrunner in a domestic election in the United States, in the coming November month. And he goes on and on about sleepy Joe when he ought to be dealing with the pandemic. And that is why, long ago, several weeks ago, the number of people who've died in America as a result of the COVID pandemic is higher than the biggest American tragedy of my generation, which was the American invasion of Vietnam. They had 58 thousand young boys of your age (I was your age then) killed in Vietnam on a useless war, and now they killed about 70-80 thousands of Americans in this Pandemic, where everyone else has a much more restricted kill [death rate]. Europe has been adversely affected, but it's dealing with it, and therefore what appeared like a very dangerous situation in countries like Spain, Germany and Britain seems much more under control, than the United States that's now burning because of what was done to this young man Lloyd. So I think when you talk of the West, which is a very old phraseology: There's an America, there's a Europe and there are some parts of Asia which are under the American heel. Bug the dream of the 21st century being the century of America in Asia is I think completely over, and we ought to be evaluating our relationships with the United States on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other hand, on a completely fresh basis so that we go back to first principles of non-alignment, i.e. not neutrality, but participation in world affairs without being 'Parti Pris' as the French say, ‘without having to bend to one side or the other in advance of dealing with the merits of a question’. And that requires a very stable neighbourhood. So until Mr Modi can get a hold of his South Asia policy, he will not have a hold of his Asia policy, and therefore will not have a hold over foreign policy as a whole. I don't think foreign policies consists of holding mega rallies of NRIs in some stadium in Houston, or indeed on the eve of the pandemic hitting India, getting two lakh people together to say 'Namaste Trump', which has led to 'Namaste Corona' in Ahmedabad in Corona, which is the worst affected city of its size in India today. What Modi did to Ahmedabad, his friend Trump is doing to the United States.

 

According to Stephen Cohan, South Asia is the least economically intertwined region of the world, having merely 5 per cent intraregional trade. India and Pakistan have acted like realists, with a major focus on maximising their military power rather than focus on things like economic interdependence. Do you think there should be, or there could be, a change in the coming years?

 

MSA: Yes! If we can get rid of Modi. No, if we can't get rid of him. By present reckoning, the opposition is in too much disarray to be able to even take advantage of the present political problems of Modi, let alone what they'll deal in four years from now. So I have an extremely pessimistic reading of India-Pakistan relations in the remaining Modi years, however many they may be. I doubt that we'll ever get back to the Manmohan-Mussharaf phase, where even the problem of Kashmir was being sorted out, but for an accident of history would have now been behind us. So we need an enlightened leadership to have an enlightened neighbourhood policy, and if we're going to head towards Hindutva, a Hindu India, then you can kiss goodbye to all your young generation hopes. There's no way in which India and Pakistan can get together, so long as Mr Modi is fulfilling Jinnah's dream of having two nations on the subcontinent. We said in 1947, 'You can have your Islamic Pakistan if you want, but we are not going to become a Hindu India, and that is why Jinnah was able to realize only half his dream. But now, his forces are working on India, and we're moving from being a secular nation to being a Hindu nation- a nation which discriminates on religious matters against its own people- and that is why the protests that had broken out in December and January will have to be resumed once this COVID crisis is over.

 

What do you think should be the role of rural governments in collecting data, taking into account factors like caste and gender, for coming up with welfare schemes and institutions that might help in development?

 

MSA: As far as figures on caste are concerned, a very deliberate decision was taken to not include them in the census, except for Scheduled castes (SCs). But states have made their own arrangements to collect information about what is called the backward castes. And since the Mandal agitation of 1990, I'm afraid we have moved in a backward direction, and where we were hoping that Indians could move out of their caste configuration of their own standing in society and their position vis-a-vis other Indians, I am afraid we have regressed in the last 30 years, and the dream that we have back in the 1980s, in fact, let me take you back to the 50s, when the Kelkar committee report on the backward classes was first submitted, and chairman Kelkar actually wrote in its premise, that he hoped his recommendation would not be implemented because it could lead to the renewed caste-ization of the Hindu society. But these are now realities to contend with, and I think most states have a fairly clear idea as to who are the backward castes, and by subtracting them from the total number of Hindus, you can get the number of the forward castes, especially by taking into account the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. So I don't see that as a practical way forward. There are many other things that we can do. We have discovered that the Muslims of India are the least beneficiaries of the processes of progress that had taken place in the first 65 years or so of India's independence and we were beginning to address those issues when we lost the government, and now I see nothing but discrimination against the Muslims and alienation of our minorities and had seen today how some Christian pastor in Tamil Nadu has escaped with 16 stitches on his head and [I think] 9 stitches on his arm. So this kind of religious intolerance which characterized the 20s and led to the partition of India is going to lead to the partition of our country again- The disintegration of our country, not the partition. Unless we firmly return to the path of Gandhi and Nehru, which is Secularism, and a determined effort to get rid of the caste system progressively, if not in a sudden go.

 

It has been seen that countries with better surveillance technology have done better when it comes to handling the crisis. (Case in point: Vietnam) What do you think, then, is the future of surveillance in India?

 

MSA: I am afraid I am not sufficiently technically competent to answer that question, but I certainly see surveillance of an authoritarian kind- of the kind that the government of India today is attempting to impose on our nation- as a throwback to the period of the emergency. And therefore, where the emergency was an aberration in the evolution of our Democracy, I'm afraid the kind of surveillance and authoritarianism that we've been seeing evolving over the last 6 years is what is, to use a favourite phrase of the journalists today- the new normal. Therefore, I am very apprehensive of it, but I do confess that I'm too technologically challenged to be able to answer your question satisfactorily.

 

Do you think that, in terms of a behavioural change, both Indian citizens and the government may start spending more on healthcare and hygiene in the post-COVID-19 world?

 

MSA: You're talking about the behavioural change of the people or our government? What we need, most importantly, is behavioural change on the part of the government. The government needs to prioritize education and health above all other considerations. We are prioritizing defence, heavy investment, the private sector, and not prioritizing the two sectors- health and education- that are aching for government intervention. And so long as investment in public goods is as low as they are, and so long as the Panchayats are not made an integral part of last-mile delivery of both education and health, I'm afraid we are going to continue to live with completely wrong priorities. We need a situation in which the top politicians of India look to become the health minister and the HRD minister, and not the defence minister and the finance minister. That is the day when we will be able to secure the required behavioural change on the part of the government, and after that we can look after the behavioural change on the part of the people. I don't think the answer lies in wearing masks and keeping a social distance, which in any case can only be done by people like you and me because we have already secured our own health parameters. It can't be done in the slums of India, it doesn't need to be done in the villages of India. Behavioural change is required of the government, not of the people.

 

 

If you could propose ideas for resurrecting the Congress party, what would those be?

 

MSA: You know it's very difficult for me to answer your question because I am a member of the Congress Party. I have put out my ideas in my columns, and I have happily been not reprimanded for that. But I do think these issues need to be very very seriously tackled, but cannot be tackled on a public platform. And by creating controversies outside of the framework, that the party has or should have, and maybe that's why we should start 'should have'- to have a full democratic open discussion of these issues. After all, this is our party- it's not your party, it's not the party of the opposition (of those who want to see a Congress Mukt Bharat)- these are issues that relate to the congress party itself, and I regret that we do not seem to have a forum where ordinary members of the congress like myself can be heard. Maybe that's what needs to be done, but if you would take the trouble of reading some articles that I have written on the subject, particularly before the COVID outbreak, you'll see that I do have ideas, but I don't want to discuss them on this open public platform.


(This interview originally appeared in Seasonal Magazine's Podcast: https://anchor.fm/seasonal-magazine/episodes/Seasonal-Magazines-Interview-with-Mani-Shankar-Aiyar--Author--Politician--Former-Diplomat-efn8i8) 

Monday, June 22, 2020

Seasonal Magazine's Interview with Dr Dipa Sinha, Assistant Professor (Economics), Ambedkar University

By Teres Sajeev


In these precarious times, different stakeholders and activists are on the lookout for accurate policies to address the manifest issues that the pandemic has caused or otherwise exposed. Dr. Dipa Sinha, particularly known for her work in the Right to Food campaign, has also worked extensively in the fields of Public Healthcare and Gender.

Talking about the Public Distribution System, she asserted that it is equipped to cater to 60% of the population, but it had failed during the pandemic due to sheer insensitivity towards the plight of the people. In the context of our failing Public Healthcare System, she highlighted the importance of putting a united front to fight the pandemic along with our Private sector after due negotiations with them. However, universal healthcare is a long-term goal that can be secured only through increased spending on healthcare, particularly the public healthcare because that alone will ensure access.

The key to Atmanirbhar Bharat is to create demand for domestic goods from the domestic economy. The way to make this happen she said, “is through external stimulus in the form of fiscal spending by the government”. Referring to the package for agriculture, she said that it is not a crisis response for sure and elaborated on the necessary steps that can be taken to support farmers.

She also talked about the status of women altering after the lockdown, primarily because the few jobs available will be secured by men first. To handle the migrant workers crisis in the long term she advocated the strengthening of Migrant Workers Act and thereby ensuring their registration to provide them entitlements.

While concluding she pointed out that in India, we don’t have the luxury to talk about the lives vs. livelihood debate as people don’t have lives if they don’t have livelihoods. “The question for us is how do we allow livelihoods to continue while ensuring that the infection spread is slowed down and that people who get infected can access healthcare.”

 

In this interview with Seasonal Magazine, Dr Sinha (DS) shares her insights on some of the pressing issues of this crisis: the role of public services, the effectiveness of Atmanirbhar Bharat and the impact of the situation on vulnerable populations.

 

In the past 4 months, 6.5 million tonnes of grains rotted in the godowns, more than what was distributed through the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana. Should this be considered as pure negligence or is there a deeper systemic failure that needs to be addressed with respect to our Public Distribution System?

DS: We have to understand that our Public Distribution system does have some inefficiencies, but it has been a system that has been in place for a very long time. Firstly, relative to its size its infact quite efficient in reaching out to the largest number of beneficiaries in the country. Secondly, whatever few phone surveys have been there till now shows that of the various schemes the government has undertaken to provide relief as a result of the lockdown, the PDS has been the most successful. It has been managed in a manner to reach the most number of people.

But on the other hand what we see is a situation of very high food stocks in the FCI godowns. In fact the highest amount historically, 80 million tons, which actually allows us to give more people and give more grain. That is something that has not been forthcoming. It is more because of the insensitiveness towards the plight of the people than anything else. I will give you one example, the Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana announced 5kg of additional grain for the poor for three months during the period of lockdown for those who have ration cards. Whereas people who were outside the PDS network, who did not meet whatever eligibility criteria there was to get a ration card or because the population figures were not updated, did not receive ration during this time of crisis. 

Since we have grain in hand, it would have been very simple to distribute it even to those who don’t have a ration card. That would not have required any additional infrastructure because there are already fair price shops that provide ration to 60% of the population. So it would not take any additional effort to do it. Infact it is insensitivity, because on the one side you had huge stocks of grain and on the other side, you had the infrastructure to distribute the grain. But you still did not distribute it.

Several reports demonstrate that the public healthcare system in India is succumbing to the excess demand and is not equipped to fight a pandemic. Do you think that this makes a case for India to follow suit like several countries who have passed an order to bring hospitals in private sector under public control for a limited period? What are the steps we can take to ensure universal healthcare at this crucial juncture?

DS: So taking your first question, I do think this should be done. It is not something that should be set in the context of India alone as many countries are already doing this. This is a global pandemic. It is a situation of crisis and we need to pool in all our resources so that we ensure that they are not just efficiently distributed, but also equitably distributed. Data shows that due to the neglect of the public healthcare system over the years, people are now largely dependent on the private sector. This is the case for both out-patient and in-patient care. Additionally, we also know that the regulation of the private sector in health in India has been very weak. This is the reason why it has been possible for things like overcharging to happen. To avoid this and ensure that there is some equity in the system, the government has to bring in the private sector as well. That cannot be by force. It should be done after negotiations with the private sector. Some kind of coordination so that beds and human resources which is very important is made available for the government to be able to address this crisis.

The issue of universal healthcare is much larger and would require longer time, because we have such a weak public healthcare system in the country. For example, India has the highest out of pocket expenditure on healthcare in the world. Almost 67% of the health expenditure that people make in our country comes from their own pocket. And this is really high even compared to a country like the US where healthcare is largely privatised. There are huge gaps in availability of infrastructure and availability of human resources.

All of this ultimately relates to the fact that we have been underspending on health for a very long time. While the WHO recommends that the national health policy of the country should spend at least 3% of the GDP, we spent only 1.2% of the GDP: Centre and States combined. First thing to do to move towards universal healthcare is to increase the spending on health. Increase in spending should be in a manner by which public health systems are strengthened because they reach out to the far corners of the country and they are more accessible to the poorest of the poor.

 

India has witnessed an unprecedented level of unemployment even before the lockdown and now the situation has become worse. Would adapting the NREGA by increasing its ambit be enough to address this crisis?

DS: To address the issue of unemployment NREGA is an important piece in the puzzle. NREGA is available for unskilled work for whoever demands work at minimum wage and that is something that can be done immediately where work sites are open. But that can’t be the solution to the employment problem in our economy where we have been facing a jobless growth. For employment more would need to be done. You would also have to look at the skilled labour. The biggest problem with employment currently is due to the lack of demand in the economy. The purchasing power is less, production is not happening and employment is not being generated. For the immediate need, NREGA and something similar in the urban areas would take care of the immediate livelihood issues of the people. But that cannot be your only employment strategy.

 

The pandemic has brought the discussion on implementing universal basic income back to the table. Do you think this is viable for India? If yes, what is the best mechanism and infrastructure that India can use for this?

DS: While the pandemic has brought the issue back on the table, all these are issues of long term welfare policies. Many of the concerns regarding universal basic income was raised before the pandemic and still continue. Firstly, the policy of Universal basic income in the context of India has been talked about as a supplement for the other services that the state provides. Whereas in advanced country it has been talked about as an additional input, and this makes a huge difference. Thus in India it comes at the cost of NREGA, at the cost of PDS, at the cost of health services and at the cost of free education. Then I think there is a problem. Because it is not that money is the only gap and market takes care of everything else. We know that there are market failures. Secondly, the amount of universal basic income that needs to be transferred to have a significant difference is very high and that will have a much higher fiscal cost than all other programmes put together.

On the other hand, it doesn’t mean that there is no space for cash transfers within the welfare system in the country. We have always had cash transfers which are important cash transfers like the old age pension, disability pensions, scholarships at schools and so on. All of these definitely need to be enhanced and at the time of the pandemic I think we should use all of these available list and these bank account numbers to make cash transfers, because like we have been saying people have lost their livelihood, there is a huge food insecurity going on. So it is not enough to run the PDS or community kitchens. Alongside these we need to make cash transfers as well.

I think currently the best platform that it can be done is using the couple of lists that the government have including the NREGA job card list because that is linked to the bank account and we know that it is a fairly reliable list. We could use other lists of old age pension, maternity entitlements and other social security pensions. Some transfers have been done but the concern was regarding the quantity that has been transferred.  For instance, Rs.500 was transferred in the Jan Dhan Yojana account. The opportunity cost of going to the bank during the lockdown and withdrawing the money was so high that one wonders what help it would have done to the people. From studies we also know that it is not predominantly the poor who have the Jan Dhan account. So it is better to use this from the social welfare schemes and make the transfer. The transfer also has to be a significant amount.

 

The agrarian economy has faced a backlash due to disruptions in activities such as harvesting, sale of produce and purchase of inputs during the lockdown. Added to this the Minimum Support Price by 2.9% for kharif crops is the lowest increase in the past 5 years. How do you think the Atmanirbhar policy that contained an explicit promise for an era of opportunities for our farmers, contribute to this distress?

DS: Unfortunately the one concrete intervention that the Atmanirbhar package had for the farmers was the increase in MSP. But when we look at the MSP data, it is the lowest increase in the last 10 years. So this is not going to help so much. Another intervention was the PM Kisan. Here again the amount of cash transfer has not been specified. One of the things that could have been done and still do is to expand PM Kisan to include tenant farmers, wage labourers and give a higher amount as well.

The Atmabirbhar has otherwise announced things that have been there in the policy field for a very long time and some of them have been done in some states. For example, opening up of Agriculture Produce Market Committe, relaxing the Essential Commodity Act and so on. I don’t think these things are going to make a huge difference to farmers’ income.  This is not a crisis response for sure. This is part of other reform processes which is opening up agriculture to the market which is on the agenda of the government. I don’t agree with a lot of them. But that is not something that can be anyways be seen as something of a relief response for the current crisis.

For me as a relief response, there would be a higher increase in the MSPs. There would be procurement of not just of rice and wheat but of other crops as well, as currently access to market was a big issue. There should be decentralised procurement. For example, making procurement possible in every Panchayat so that farmers don’t have to go far away and distancing norms can be applied. These are the kind of things that I looked forward to, but did not come.

 

The announcement of Atmanirbhar was followed by several provisions for MSME’s including dues worth Rs.5 lakh crores to assist them. However experts opine that the micro enterprises that comprise a majority of MSME’s are still largely neglected. What are the measures that can be taken to combat this?

DS: While there are some credit easing measures: the MSME’S need easier access to credit, writing off outstanding loans. All of these measures would matter when these micro enterprises will be able to restart their business and even take these loans when there is a demand in the market. We know that there is a demand crunch. So apart from measures that directly target them we should have other measure like wage support for those working in micro enterprises. It is easy to say that you have to continue to pay your workers even when there is no production, but this is not easy to do.

On the other hand what we need to do to revive the sector, is to revive demand in India where it has been stagnant for some time now and the situation is even worse now. We need to put money and thereby purchasing power into people’s hands. People who demand these small manufactured goods which are labour intensive. This will generate the classic Keynesian model multiplier mechanism and that is what is required now. Here I will come back to cash transfers, PDS, NREGA etc. All of this contribute to increasing purchasing power of people who spent a large proportion or all of their income on consumption goods which tends to be labour intensive. We should do this along with whatever we are doing like credit and skill enhancing, market access and so on.

If we really want to be Atmanirbhar, we need to get the demand for our domestic goods coming from our domestic economy itself. In the current crisis where GDP is falling at such huge rates and wages are stagnant, this can happen only when there is an external stimulus and that stimulus  can come in the form of fiscal spending by the government which is missing in the Atmanirbhar package.

 

The lockdown has exposed a huge population of migrant workers in our country that is left unattended to in the policy spectrum. What are the immediate measures that should be undertaken to protect migrant workers who have returned to their homes with their livelihoods lost? Moreover, what are the long-term policies that can be undertaken to cater to this population?

DS: Now there are millions of people who have gone back to their homes. They have gone back at a time when the economy is at a low. Therefore, immediate livelihood would be the primary concern with the meagre resources available in the rural areas. We must note that these migrants went out looking for work precisely because there was no work or resources available in the places where they come from. So now when they have gone back in an even worse situation, then obviously that is going to put pressure on everyone in the rural areas. Therefore the NREGA for example should be something that has to be immediately started. It has been started in several places and we can see that the demand is very high. The wage rate of NREGA has to be increased and the current NREGA provision that provides 100 days of work for per household should be expanded. Now with migrant workers going back that limit will has to be done away with. Either it has to be converted into an individual entitlement and not per household or it has to provide work double the quantity for whoever is demanding work.

Then how do you deal with it in the longer term would depend on the overall economic model that the country has been following. We have to go back to the structural reasons for such an uneven development, where every few years we have a crisis in the agriculture sector and agriculture is absorbing fewer and fewer labour which is seemingly a normal process of the structural transformation. But on the other hand the manufacturing sector or the good quality employment and services are not able to absorb people. So we have a large amount of self-employment and casual employment but very few regular employment available both in rural and urban areas and that is also uneven across states. Migration is not something that will end. People will go back looking for livelihood opportunities and we are one country where that should be allowed.

What we should do is that Migrant workers Act can be strengthened. We have to think from the point of view of the migrants and the entitlements of the migrants and their families and not look at them as cheap labour for the destination space. One of the things that came out quite starkly in this crisis is that many states use the labour of migrant workers for essential services or for our cities to continue functioning. But the minute there was a crisis and they could not work on the services due to the lockdown they were suddenly, the Bihari construction worker who was helping us in Delhi and not a worker who helped us built buildings. He was a Bihari who was not the headache of the Delhi government and they were sent back. I think this attitude should change and we need to have better laws for their welfare.

Registration of workers is something that was being talked about for a very long time and once again now. This will enable them to access their entitlements. All of these things have been in the pipeline for a very long time. I think as the middle class also, we must really now acknowledge the fact that migrant workers contribute to our lives and to keep the city functioning. Therefore they have to be paid minimum wages, given housing and other basic facilities.

I just want to add one more point that is something even I am doing while I am speaking to you. When we speak of migrants we are only speaking of the working class. There itself you can see the class bias and difference that we are making. I am a migrant in Delhi and teach in a university but I don’t feel like a migrant here. It has not become impossible for me to live here in this crisis. But a migrant construction worker, migrant vegetable seller, migrant domestic worker, as soon as their activity stopped, they were made to feel as if they don’t belong her. And that they have to go back. So this crisis at one level showed us how badly we treat our workers. This is where I think the change needs to begin. There are also many policy initiatives that are required, starting from legislation to having programmes, regulation, registration, social security and so on.

 

In your book, “Women, Health and Public Services in India: Why do States differ?” you point towards women’s status, specifically education as one the most significant factors that contribute to better health outcomes in states. How do you think the ramifications of the pandemic will alter the status of women?

DS: Already we are seeing a lot of reports on the gendered impact of the pandemic. Much more than the pandemic, it is a combination of pandemic and the lockdown, both in the household and in the labour market. Firstly, for instance all over the world domestic violence rates have surged with men staying at home, with general high level of stress and domestic violence is one of the ways in which it has been coming out.

The mainstream definition of labour market participation and the data around it since the last three NSSO surveys and even before that with a slight improvement in between we find that the female labour force participation has infact declined. The number of women who can participate in what is termed as economic activity is very low in India and among them who can participate in paid employment is even less. That is becoming more in this context with returning migrants, high levels of unemployment, the few jobs that are available will be all taken away by the men. So there will be even fewer opportunities available for women as far as employment is concerned.

On the other hand there are certain sectors that have exclusively women workers where there has been an increased pressure on them to work much more. For example, frontline health workers, like the ASHA and Anganwadi workers, ANM etc. These are all, all women cadre and from day one of the pandemic they have been involved in various activities in the community, to create awareness, contact tracing, bringing people to the health system and so on. They did not even have proper safety equipment. These are also very poorly paid cadre of work. If you look at the policy, ASHA workers are honorarium workers who are just paid for the work they do as an incentive, without a regular salary. An additional Rs. 1000 to do what has almost become a full day work for them like taking surveys, accompanying people to the healthcare. Then there are Anganwadi workers who are poorly paid. The pressure on all these workers have increased with the health crisis that we now have, at the same time the conditions of work are very poor and they need training, handholding support and better incomes.

Finally the other way in which we see women being unevenly affected by the pandemic is the burden of care work within the household, increasing. So now in our country, most of the household work and caregiving work is undertaken by women, among all classes and more so among the poor because there is no support of technology. With schools closing, mid-day meals not happening, Anganwadis not running, there is more work in terms of cooking and taking care of people. With more people falling sick there is additional caregiving required and this falls on women. As of now we are not seeing a gendered response to this crisis. As far as the mainstream understanding goes, men are affected with Covid more than women. However, they have been affected by the lockdown and the crisis both within the household and outside.

In terms of malnutrition we already have 37% of our population stunted, huge prevalence of anaemia among women and children. Firstly, we know that diets have reduced in terms of quantity and quality. Within the household women eat least and eat last and this will make it worse for women. We don’t know what effect it will have on anaemia prevalence. Regular doses of immunisation are also disrupted and we don’t know what is happening to child malnutrition as well.

Adding one more thing regarding women and healthcare, there are several reports on women finding it hard to access delivery and pregnancy care during this lockdown. Because all other health services have been disrupted with hospitals and health centres being put aside completely for Covid services. There is also an impact that you will see on other kind of health conditions and this is also uneven with women getting lesser access than men.

 

In your recent report ‘The Twin Crises of Covid-19 and the Modi government’s response’, it was estimated that around 750 people have died due to the lockdown. What is your stand on this lives versus livelihood debate? Do you think such a trade-off really exists?

DS: Firstly, the number is likely to be a huge under estimate. We didn’t do the estimate but quoted from reports of researchers that estimated the number of deaths that are reported in the media and are likely to be due to the lockdown due to starvation, suicides etc. This number has risen to over 850 already.

That is to highlight that the cost of the lockdown has been tremendous on people’s lives, many more could have died, many lives have been disrupted. I think posing this as a lives versus livelihood contradiction is misplaced, particularly in a poor country like India, There is no lives versus livelihood where so many people have no lives if they don’t have livelihood. In our country it is not like people have savings and people can work from home for a few months or so. More than 90% of the Indian labour force most of them are paid either daily or weekly wages and they really lead a hand to mouth existence. So if for so many months they do not have incomes that means hunger and otherwise an economic distress. That is why I think the kind of lockdown we had was misplaced for our conditions. We had the most stringent lockdown in the world. In an economy which cannot afford it, without even preparing for the kind of protection mechanism that needed to have been in place. This lockdown would have made sense if those six weeks were used to improve the health capacity and put in place mechanisms to slowdown the spread of the disease. Therefore we really need to move ahead from this debate. The question for us is how we will allow livelihoods to continue while ensuring that the infection spread is slowed down and that people who get infected can access healthcare. That is how we need to pose the question.

 

The recent ICMR report stated that India’s peek is likely to occur in Mid-November. This would necessitate the adherence to physical distancing measures for a longer period. How do you think this will affect the vulnerable population who cannot afford physical distancing?

DS: I am not an epidemiologist. So I don’t know about the data and the ICMR data which says the peak will come in November has not been owned up by ICMR. But I know that the peak has not come yet and the peak is not going to come at the same time across the county. The infection started at different times in different countries and States and infection soared quickly in states which had a higher number of people coming from abroad. Therefore Maharashtra, Delhi were most affected initially. But now with migrants going back, there is spread of virus to newer states.

Physical distancing, we have to recognize that it is not something that can be equally practiced and that is not because of anything else other than it not being possible. In slums, they stay in congested houses 10x10m rooms and use common toilets. We have to think about what physical distancing would mean in this context. We could avoid crowding in places like malls and schools. But even in the day to day lives of so many people, physical distancing is not possible. Along with physical distancing, we should focus on other measures as well. Which is to ensure hygiene, particularly hand washing and providing masks. This again requires infrastructure and support. Even though we may not be able to provide larger living spaces to people in slums, arrangements can be made so that there is water supply, soap and masks are available.

Soaps could be distributed through public distribution system. There was a video that showed that in Kerala auto rickshaws had hand washing systems installed in it. All slums should have public places where people can wash their hands. Bus stops should have places where you can wash your hands. We also have to provide mask and sensitise people to wear it because now the WHO and GOI is saying that masks are helpful. Of course all this should be done along with this physical distancing, but the viability is limited given the living conditions.

There should be continuous circulation of messages without stigmatising people who are infected or are potentially infected. Currently in this environment of fear we can also see a lot of stigma. It is as if anybody who has Covid is to be blamed because they did not take enough care. We have to understand that the disease has progressed and it is coming from places that you don’t know.


(This interview originally appeared in Seasonal Magazine's podcast. You may listen to it here: https://anchor.fm/seasonal-magazine/episodes/Seasonal-Magazines-Interview-with-Dr-Dipa-Sinha--Assistant-Professor-Economics--Ambedkar-University-efm5jc) 

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