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Amrutmahotsav, IMF & Reimagining Indian State

20-04-2021published_dt 2021-04-20T12:06:20.256Z20-04-2021 17:36:20 IST
Updated On 20-04-2021 17:38:42 ISTmodified_dt 2021-04-20T12:08:42.981ZUpdated On 20-04-20212021-04-20T12:06:20.256Z20-04-2021 2021-04-20T12:06:20.256Z - 2021-04-20T12:08:42.981Z - 20-04-2021

Hello and welcome to Midweek Matters.


In the mornings I usually sit in the portico to have my coffee watching flowers, birds, butterflies, bees and squirrels. Milk and newspaper vendors come along and quickly disappear. 

On that particular morning, last week I was looking at the reports the papers carried on the World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund - IMF - released on the previous day. 

As I was reading the reports, and trying to understand the IMF's forecasts about the world economy and its estimates on the damage COVID-19 had inflicted on the world, I noticed the boy who comes to collect the domestic trash. 

His father pedals the rickshaw trolley and stays put in it while the boy walks in through the gate and takes the trash bag. He wears dirty clothes. He’s unwashed. Must be a school drop out. I smile at him. He doesn’t smile back. Instead, he looks at me in bewilderment. Suspicion, perhaps. Maybe he’s not used to people smiling at him. I can only guess what’s running in his mind. 

He may be angry. Resenting me, who’s sitting in clean clothes and having morning coffee. Perhaps unable to understand why his father can’t sit like I do, and sip his coffee in the morning. Why he too can’t be at home, in clean clothes like many other children he sees every morning while on his rounds. 

I wonder what he thinks of the privilege he stares at, inequality he comes across, government he hears of, dirty work he does and the clean tasks others do, education he is familiar to him yet not really accessible. 

While he collected and carried trash, I tried speaking to him. I asked him his name. He told me Ramesh. Then I asked him his age. He said he was 15. I doubted. He looked much younger. Maybe he was tutored to lie about his age, so that he can escape the category of child labour. I continued the conversation and asked him for how long he’d been helping his father. He told me, for about four to five years. That gave him away. If not now, until last year and for about three to four years before that he was indeed a child labour. Even before the lockdown, he told me he was irregular to school.

Schools are now closed. But there are only online classes. But he doesn’t have a smartphone or a computer. There’s no internet access to him. He can’t hope to have. He’s on the wrong side of the digital divide. Our Prime Minister's Pariksha Pe Charcha is irrelevant to him. He’s yet to be touched by Vikas. The huge stimulus package has not yet trickled down to his dwelling and is yet to make a difference to his life. 

He’s beyond the pale of the discourse of our political economy. The heated debates on our television screens, the bitter electoral battles that are now being fought or were fought earlier do not make sense to him. Because he doesn’t figure in them.

In his reality, he’s not relevant to the state to the system.

But the question is: shouldn’t he be? 

He’s unaware that about 75 million people in our country have joined him in poverty in the last one year. He doesn’t know that his country is home to nearly one third of the world's poor. That the world is now staring at the first ever rise in poverty since 1990. That already 270 million people are facing starvation globally. He doesn’t know that while our country's economy is likely to get back on to the path of growth, yet the uneven growth within the country will more likely than not leave him where he is now. He will be lucky if his situation doesn’t get worse. But the policy makers' admiring eyes are fixed on the increasing net worth of our wealth creators - both of them. And looking at them, we are happy that our country is on the path of recovery. 

I’m looking only at his economic and educational handicap. I’ve not gone into his social disadvantage. And the consequential negative impact on his nutrition, physical health, mental well being that could deny him the ability to access the state. What if he is one of the 39% of our children who suffer from  childhood malnutrition? Can we be certain that he is not.

I’m sure, he’d like to be part of our ambitious 5 trillion dollar economy project. He’d also like to contribute a few dollars to it. But can he? Does the existing architecture of opportunity give him a chance?

This boy Ramesh, his family, his neighbours, his street, the village he lives in should occupy the mind of our state and our rulers. Not reduced to dry data and statistics in spreadsheets. Looking at faces, not at data makes a lot of difference. It humanises our political social and economic reality. That’s the reason why the talisman that Gandhiji gave us is so very powerful: whenever you’re faced with a difficult decision, imagine the poorest of the poor and see if your decision brings a smile on their faces. 

What can bring smile to the face of Ramesh? It could be Ahmad, Peter, Lalitha, Fatima, Mary. Who can send him to school, stop him collect rubbish, help him wear clean clothes, eat well, be healthy, treated and looked after when ill, protected, not discriminated, enable him to live peacefully in a harmonious and just society, free to pursue his chosen spiritual and religious path? 

The coming months and years are going to be tough for him and people like him, families like his, and for communities that he comes from. 

The IMF says that the world economy, which contracted by -3.3% in 2020 is going to reel under the impact of COVID-19 until at least 2022. It revised upwards its October growth estimates for all countries, across the board. The US is already the top performer.  All other economies, countries will take time. India growth numbers, like every other country's, are revised upwards from 11.5% to 12.5% for this year. It is likely to be 6.9% for next year. But it will only be after 2023 that our country will be at a striking distance from its pre-pandemic level. But mind you, even before pandemic we were in an unmistakable slowdown. And with the fresh wave of COVID and sluggish roll out of vaccine, we may not do as well as projected.

IMF forecasts that the recovery is going to be uneven and stumbling across the countries, and more importantly within the countries in the developing world. Asian economy, excluding China, will be smaller by about 8%, Latin America's by 6%. Keep in mind that developing countries account for 58% of the global economy. In countries that are unable or unwilling to invest in beefing up their social spending, the scars on the poor and underprivileged are going to be deep, worsen their poverty numbers and are likely to cause further distress. Women, young people and unskilled workers are going to be at a severe disadvantage. As the crisis has accelerated many of the jobs are lost and unlikely to the return.

This global health crisis has finally made Fund-Bank neoliberal priesthood to realise that treasury spending and investment on welfare, healthcare, housing, education, employment, skilling, income support, and social security are to be prioritised by governments. It clearly says that resources will need to be devoted to reverse learning losses among children who lost instructional time during the pandemic through increased spending on education. 

This year's IMF report gives us a clear indication that the 1980s Washington consensus is finally breaking down. It began creaking in the aftermath of 2008-09 financial crisis. It took COVID-19 to unravel it completely. IMF admits that it’s the large stimulus packages that made developed economies avoid worse situations. "Thanks to unprecedented policy response, the COVID-19 recession is likely to leave smaller scars than the 2008 global financial crisis" IMF report said. 

In India, as well as across the globe, the role of the state needs to be reimagined now. Welfare and empowerment can’t be just slogans anymore. Programmes can’t be limited to conducting dazzling events to grab media headlines. 

We need to do a forensic examination of the fate of our much publicised programmes: Stand Up India, Skill India, Start up India, Make in India. They held out immense promise. But why are they not delivering? Why are they not on course? Why are they not reaching? Why are they not changing lives? Why are they stuck? And actually where are they? Where are their programmes?

We are readying to celebrate the Amrutmahotsav of our Independence. 

There are many achievements in the last 75 years of our nation's independent journey. But there are also many unfinished tasks. Many new challenges. Many subversions of our efforts. There are explanations, justifications for not being able to do what we had set out to do. But excuses don’t wash. One thing is clear. We have underperformed. We have not realised our full potential. East Asia and Southeast Asia which were no better than us even in the nineteen seventies have overtaken us and improved their people's living conditions far too impressively. I’m sure our dust boy Ramesh doesn’t know that our country once resounded with the slogan Garibi Hatao. But it remained a slogan. Just a slogan, that rained votes. 

Amrutmahotsav provides an occasion, an opportunity, for introspection, scrutiny, examination, evaluation. There’s a real danger of it becoming just an year long series of dazzling events. Hope the leadership doesn’t squander this momentous milestone. 

The question therefore is: can our leadership rise above petty narratives of identity and look at the faces of Ramesh, Ahmed, Peter, or Lalitha, Fatima, Mary? And resolve to bring smiles to their faces?