The announcement of Rs 1.7 trillion ($24 billion) relief package by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, aimed at providing a safety net for those hit the hardest by the COVID-19 lockdown, came as a big assuagement. In addition, Rs 50 lakh health insurance cover scheme for frontline health workers for next three months, direct cash transfer to around 800 million people, along with free cereals and cooking gas for the next three months, was additional needed commiseration. Around 22 lakh health workers, Safali Karmacharis, ward-boys, nurses, ASHA workers, paramedics, technicians, doctors and specialists and other health workers are covered by this health insurance scheme.
The Reserve Bank of India also joined the global fight with interest rate cuts and three-month moratorium on payment of EMIs on all term loans, including corporate, housing, and auto.
COVID-19 will change India forever. It has already compelled the country, the second most populous in the world, to go on an unprecedented 21-day lockdown. Unprecedented and quite unlike the character of the ever-moving, ever-travelling India that never stops still, not even in the torrential rains or in the dry summers. India has no other choice to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus. While in a certain way, the country looks like a deserted, sleepy continent, this crisis has in fact awakened a new energy and responsible aspirations among the rank and file of India’s leadership. The government took proactive measures of locking down the entire country all of a sudden was the need of the hour.
Officials of the Government of India and the state governments are now coordinating closely on safe movement and food for migrant workers and other personnel from their work place to their homes. In addition to these policy interventions and ground level implementation, 21 days of lockdown brings tremendous opportunity for the country as a whole:
Riding the Demographic Curve
Leveraging the demographic dividend, India may ramp up skill development to cover, among other things vocational education, start-up basics, life skills etc. The parallel channel of Doordarshan or live streaming methods may be used as more than 60% of households in India have access to television. Even almost 88 percent of households have access to phone, out of which more than half use smartphone. The Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship has launched skill India program in which it has to create empowered workforce of 40 crore by 2022. This quarantine period would provide captive audience for the country. Each day several live sessions may be arranged on various skills (this may be arranged parallel too).
After each of the session, an email may be released where viewer may ask questions related to that session. These questions may be classified through disruptive technology like artificial intelligence, answers to these questions may be sent to particular individuals or may be published jointly at any pre-announced website. The general skills of Indian youth would certainly improve. Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs), Indian Institute of Management (IIMs), National Centre for Good Governance (NCGG), Mussoorie and several other private organizations working in these fields may collaborate to design interesting and useful skill modules.
Code India for Indian Children
Any program like ‘Code India’ may be launched for students of various age groups, like 10 -13, 13-16, and 17-21, where computer coding may also be taught to students. This may be telecast on Doordarshan. In addition, several state governments and also the government of India have distributed laptops to various students. This would enhance students’ interest in coding. In the USA, I have observed that coding is being taught to students as young as eight years. Very large number of Indians form the very foundation of constitute the Silicon Valley of California, and it significantly contributes to the SGDP of California ($3.13 trillion) making it more than the GDP of India ($2.97 Trillion). This period is an opportunity where we infuse interest of youth in the field of IT, which may provide us dividend in the long run.
Connect the Workers, Connect the Work
Officials of all states are busy in tracing their migrant laborers, their movements and wellbeing. India has developed quite a comprehensive website in www.covid19india.com. Similarly, a comprehensive website which includes information about these laborers, their food tie-ups with state government or the non-profit sector, and their shelter arrangements may be released. This would complement the efforts of several key officials at the state and federal level. This data would later also provide us insights into migration pattern of domestic laborers which would help designing appropriate policies later. This would also help map the skill sets of labourers based on the region with specific details of villages of these laborers.
Connect With Dignity: Physical Distancing Not Social Exclusion
Social distancing indicates more of physical distancing than the social distancing at this moment. This means we have to keep in touch with our relatives, friends and family members through phone or any other medium of information technology. One should not understand the meaning of social distancing as excluding your relatives, family and friends completely from your view of horizon, but take care of them while maintaining physical distancing.
All family members have quarantined themselves inside their homes, where support staff are also not visiting to help in cooking, cleaning and child care. This would help bring social equity in the society in long term as not only the affluent get sensitized for dignity of labour, they also learn and develop these life skills.
Tales Beyond Covid-19
The government can declare some of the private nursing homes and clinics in each district exclusively for treatment of illnesses other than COVID-19. These hospitals may treat the patients at the same rate approved as per Ayushman Bharat.
Attend to Anxiety, Manage the Stress
Psychological stress and panic has surged because of continuous media coverage and social media on COVID-19, where it is made to believe that coronavirus may attack anyone and everyone any time during the day. People are living in the state of continuous fear. In addition, people would not be able to go for their physical exercises or work. Therefore, the mass media, Doordarshan and media houses should play constructive role that reduces fear from the minds of people that we are living on planet of bio-bomb currently.
Start-up Ecosystem and the Ecology of India
This is also an opportune time to start a federation of start-up ecosystem where senior most representatives of top 100 start-ups (in terms of their reach or outcome) may be contacted directly by the government with a request that their creative IT team may develop any software/app that helps contain COVID-19.
Start-ups that use disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence, block chain, robotics etc. to improve our agricultural productivity, market linkages, financial inclusion, data analytics, and improve socio-economic conditions of farmers and migrant laborers may be encouraged. Animal husbandry which provides livelihood to large population also demands improvement through merging technology. This may also form part of the message to these 100 startup leaders. The creation of federation of these start-ups would provide more opportunity for these startups to collaborate, learn from each other and also ensure participation and support from the state government.
Repositioning of the National Channel
This is an opportunity to reposition our national channel Doordarshan where all time popular serials may be showcased.
This is the moment to pursue your hobby, and also interact with your family and children. This would provide an opportunity to follow your creativity, teach your children new skills, understand your spouse to cement your family foundation, or to read books or listen to your favorite songs, practice yoga or follow Vipasna.
Taking care of migrant labourers is a major challenge today. The senior most secretaries with the state government to the collectors of the districts are busy coordinating the movement and safety of migrant labourers. I really find an ethical conundrum because on one hand, I find it logical to arrange to send these migrant workers back home as was done for international students, tourists, and workers of China, Italy, Iran, and some other countries. On the other hand, it is also a challenge to ensure self-quarantine at all levels when the entire country is complying with it.
If these laborers are sent back to their villages, some of the villages which are otherwise isolated from the beating of Covid-19 may contract infection. Containing the penetration in the villages with relatively modest health facilities would be challenging later. This indeed requires policy decision at the higher level. In the meantime, there may be arrangement of shelter, food and medical assistance at interstate border in some panchayat buildings, schools, or community halls for these migrant labourers who have assembled in large numbers at the inter-state border.
I would like to mention about a viral message in the social media which narrates a story of a man who sacrificed his share of milk for another lady with a child. In order to fight this war, one has to come out our self-interest to contribute towards the welfare of the disadvantaged, marginalized, and the less endowed. This is an opportunity not only for the business magnates, industrial Croesus, and realty tycoon to contribute graciously in the Prime Minister’s National relief fund or Chief Minister’s relief fund, but as a citizen too, one can contribute their bit through their conduct, adhering to the collective instruction, and also taking care of the less fortunate in the society.