Thursday, May 21, 2020

Uneven Covidentiary Steps

Fear and uncertainty – these are the two biggest tools for politicians to keep a vast population under control. “Don’t cross that Lakshman Rekha”… “Don’t allow anyone in” … “Get the Arogya App”. And add to it the trick of scheduling a speech at 8pm or if it’s late, then schedule it for 9am the next morning. All this does is to increase anticipation, anxiety and endless discussions on what will Modi say, what is this about, is there more lockdowns or is there some relief or is there an attack on PoK? All these questions start getting thrown around, some even in fun and entertainment. To fuel the uncertainties and fears, many “experts” form all sorts of mindless theories to project the calamity that awaits us and that the sky will indeed fall on our heads and therefore we must wear a skullcap:
At the time of writing there are some 1.07 lakh total Covid cases in India and 3000+ deaths. The beauty of being wrong in our wild projections is that there is no punishment for it. You can project any number in anything with any kind of reasoning behind it and can peddle it. There is no legal liability to it, unless you force someone to base purchases on it. There is no legal liability for fake poll promises or changing prepoll alliances either. For instance, fake TRP numbers can be punishable because the advertising industry and media uses TRP numbers to quote ad rates. Unscientific TRP numbers can invite legal action. Most of our decisions are not based on analysis but on gut feeling, past experience and instant experience. We understand what “past experience” is. What is “instant experience”? We all go through instant experience of something almost every day as PM Narendra Modi discovered.

In December 2019, Modi was in Kanpur to take stock of the progress in the Namami Gange project. It is a major project to clean up the Ganga and is well intentioned. The Atal Ghat project in Kanpur was executed by the govt=owned Engineers India Limited. This is an age-old company with vast experience in public projects and they are the ones who constructed the Atal Ghat that Modi visited. But while climbing back up the steps from the ghat, Modi slipped and fell. Nothing unusual, we have all slipped and fallen a dozen times at dozens of places and on many a staircase. But a PM slipping and falling at the steps thrilled his detractors and they were happy at the silly incident. That incident was over and we all forgot about it. But no one ever looked back and investigated why the PM slipped and fell. Was it just an accident, was it just a mis-step or was there something else? We will find out that this is how “instant experience” deceives us when it takes an unscheduled change or turn and causes problems.

The Corona epidemic is one such unscheduled turn that had everyone deceived. Health workers and security providers are struggling to save people and keep order in society. After almost two months of lockdowns, the GOI is now looking to reopen businesses and restore normalcy of life and economic activity. After a couple rounds of “financial relief” measures by RBI and GOI another big round of packages was released by GOI. This is worth 20 lakh crores. However, some part of this package may work and most of it may not work. To start with, the GOI doesn’t know what the nature or size of the problem is. Almost all of its package, excluding the cash doles to some poor sections, is based on estimations and opinions of a few. During the lockdown, there has been a huge fall in supply and demand of most goods and services as they were simply absent. This image below is a snapshot of the package 5lakh crores for the MSME sector that the govt hopes to re-energise:
This is akin to the belief that if the body is badly damaged and inflicted with illness, throwing all the money you can will repair it. It doesn’t really work that way. I have mentioned in my previous posts and I do so again, PM Modi has zero clue on the Covid thing or how to handle the extended lockdowns. The first one was fine – because of fear and uncertainty. After that, Modi was the one spreading fear and panic. And it wasn’t Indian economy or re-energising it that matters so much to him but getting accolades from foreign govts and diplomats that matters more to him. It’s not just me, even his ardent fans like Minhaz Merchant have acknowledged this poor craving for recognition by Modi that drives his decisions rather than sound logic.

Taking the MSME example, most of the loans are meant for those who already have loans or outstanding loans. Within an industry, most players are likely to face problems of the same nature. In the case of goods, the biggest problem right now is “demand”. In such a situation, the govt has redefined the MSME and its financial upper limits. The new upper limits would serve new businesses but not the existing ones. There is an uneven handling of operators within the same industry. The MSME package is targeted at 45 lakh operators whereas the total number of MSMEs are around 6-7 crores. One has to wonder what happens to the rest. Will they perish or have to survive on their own? Given that the highest employment in India is in the unorganized sector, the death of crores of MSME units not within the targeted 45 lakhs will cause more unemployment:
Most people backed Modi in his lockdown announcements. In the fourth lockdown situation it has been left totally to the states to decide which areas need a lockdown. This should have been down from the second lockdown itself. But Modi wanted to play the “Superman” and single-hero role and didn’t delegate to the states. Consequently, states had all kinds of problems with floating labour, rioters and “Thookiyas” running helter-skelter. The 20-lakh crore package is huge but it has still not created the kind of excitement it should have created. This is mainly because many are still understanding the nitty gritty of the offering. Some feel more should have been offered. But in reality, the lockdown has been like an earthquake. Some damage is visible but most damage is not instantly visible. The “instant experience” of an earthquake doesn’t show all the damage it causes overall:
Each time PM Modi talks about some grand economic plan there is a lot of hollow ring to it. At the start of this second term he blabbered about a 5 trillion economy. While the ambition is welcome, he had zero clue on how and what will get us there other than pipe dreams. He also claims India has demographic dividend. This is a falsehood he lives in that will cost India heavily. A big chunk of this demography is absolutely useless, unproductive lot. Tall talk of Vishwa Guru, Vasudeva Kutumbam are all nonsensical bhashans uncalled for in a pure economic plan. So-called “structure” if Indian economy is sound, they always claim. But the structure does need a review frequently as do the steps of Atal Ghat that Modi fell on.

Instant experience when you climb the stairs of any building. Your feet quickly adjust to the height and interval of the stairs. And after initial slow climbing, many people can blindly climb up fast without looking at the stairs because their feet have adjusted to the experience. Now, look at the steps of Atal Ghat. They are absolutely idiotic construction to say the least. The steps are of different heights at different levels as I have marked and shown. God is in the details. It is natural anyone who climbs them at the same speed could fall as the height and intervals are not the same. The Covid Lockdown too gives us all an uneven experience with lots of uncertainties. ModiSarkar would have been prudent if they had looked back at the construction of Atal Ghat just as they should completely review the structure of Indian economy.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Full Lockdown No More Justified

A war or a national calamity is always a Godsend for a PM and political party when the going is not so great. AB Vajpayee lost the confidence vote in April 1999 and was the caretaker PM. The elections in six-months (held in September-October 1999) could have gone many ways. Then Kargil happened in May and the victory over Pakistan dramatically improved ABV’s and BJP’s prospects and he was voted back as PM more convincingly. People forget all other issues when the country is faced with an enemy. Towards the fag end of the PM Modi’s first term, the economy wasn’t doing all that great and there were many other problems. And then Pulwama happened and the retaliation at Balakot in Pakistan. The Balakot bombing was like thumping our chest with pride and throughout the 2019 election campaign, Modi kept shouting “Un ko ghar pe ghoos ke maara”. That and other accomplishments gave another thumping majority to Modi and BJP.

The start to the second term of Modi was sober and, often, lackluster. Come August, 370 was junked and that gave ModiSarkar a boost. Although, junking 370 doesn’t make any difference to anyone individually, it does re-align JK with India and makes big political changes. A couple of months later, the CAA gave Hindu refugees (till 2014) from Afpak and Bangladesh the right to citizenship in India. This resulted in some bogus riots and protests ending in communal violence in Delhi. There wasn’t much cheer on the economy front for ModiSarkar but the visit of US President Donald Trump in February kept spirits going and some level of public revelry. The Delhi violence started after Trump left and the Shaheen Bagh blockade had shown Amit Shah and ModiSarkar as incompetent and inept.

In the face of all this comes the Corona epidemic which is declared a worldwide pandemic and another national crisis, another “War” as Modi called it to fight against. For a govt facing a minor economic crisis and multiple problems Corona was a Godsend. Though India was dealing with Corona from sometime in February, Modi himself got more serious about only in the first week of March or thereabouts:
Given that the Chinese Virus was new, suddenly posing a threat and little was known about it, the initial response to it is understandable. Nobody in the world was prepared for it and China and WHO misled everyone. ModiSarkar too was a bit slow in responding but that is reasonable under the circumstances. The first Corona death in India happened around March 13 and things got a bit more serious. But it wasn’t until March 20 that Modi addressed the nation and persuaded everyone to follow a “Janta Curfew” on Sunday, March 22. Though citizens diligently followed his advice, some panic had already set in and people had started hoarding some items from the market. Then, on March 23rd night, all flights were grounded. And on March 24, Modi made yet another national address announcing a 21-day complete national lockdown till April 14.

This first full lockdown was not very well thought out and seemed announced more in panic and fear. PM Modi kept advising everyone not to panic, not to fear but to take precautions but once again some migrants were running helter skelter in a few days, Muslims in ghettos and mosques didn’t want to follow the lockdown, and the state govts and police were also not fully geared to handle the sudden blockade. Everyone was “adjusting” slowly. But still, no harm done. But what did the govt learn in the 21 days of lockdown? Nobody knows. In some states, the Covid cases and deaths went up and in some states they went down. Then the explosion in cases because of Tablighis happened. And after the lockdown was further extended till May 3, some places had the same mass violations and more so in view of Ramzan:
This post will stick to the issue of lockdown and extension and deal with the mass defiance of lockdown by Muslims in another post as both the issues are separate. Modi likes drama, he likes the “shock and awe” method of doing things even when not everything is like demonetisation. The grounding of flights with many people stranded all over with a 24-hour notice was imprudent when a total lockdown was not called in yet. When the total lockdown was called for, that too was suddenly from midnight of the same evening of announcement without any thought to people still in transit or stuck at various places. The virus was not such a danger that everyone was immediately under a nuclear attack as Modi made out to be. It is almost two months since we have been seriously dealing with Corona – cases, treatments, deaths, medical supplies, violence against health workers, idiotic violations – all of it. Here is what the Covid stats looked like two days ago:
The cases are steadily growing and more so in specific parts in India. The figures in the image above are for April 27 morning. Since this keeps changing every minute, I would suggest you check the latest figures while or after you read this. As the number grows in India, the recovery rate also seems to be growing. Though the number of deaths is also growing, and unfortunately so, it is still around the 3% plus mark against the total cases. However, if you view it against the total Indian population, the number of deaths would appear to be almost negligible. Therefore, extremes like draw a “Lakshman Rekha” and “Don’t go out” and “Don’t let anyone in” are not called for anymore and that level of fearmongering can be clearly avoided. There are regions in India that are less affected and some cities are more affected by Covid. No particular state is that widely affected (except maybe Maharashtra) so as to warrant a 100% lockdown. There are certain districts and cities that are “Red hotspots” and among the top cities affected the most are:

Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Indore, Pune, Jaipur, Thane, Chennai, Hyderabad and Agra. Of course, Kolkata is also affected but is missing from the list as it seems real numbers are not coming out from Bengal.

Even in some of these cities, it is clear that “some specific” suburbs and ghettos are badly affected and not the whole city as such. If Jaipur has Ramganj, Ahmedabad has its Eastern part only, Mumbai has Dharavi, Govandi and such places. All of these Red zones have some intimacy with Tablighi Jamaat whose members have been floating around the country. Lives of millions are now damaged. Most of these millions are daily wagers who are left in the lurch with no work and no wages. Although govt claims doles being made, that would hardly be a solution for an extended lockdown.

The initial lockdown may be justified and everyone needs to support the govt and the PM without any reservation. But now we are about to near the end of the second lockdown and there is no justification by numbers or the nature of the enemy for so much fear to exist and for people to be jailed in their homes. As many doctors are pointing out, the simple rule of a quarantine is – to quarantine the sick people, not to jail the healthy people. Many doctors also claim that the more people are locked, the more they are likely it is to weaken their immune system. The stats on international standing on the Corona impact also shows India has been safer and luckier than many of the Western countries:
In the video conference with CMs on April 27, Modi wanted to know if there should be further extension of lockdowns or if they have had enough. A few CMs wanted an extension, some wanted a dole-package and others had no clue as usual. Finally, it does dawn upon Modi, that any further extension of this lockdown can seriously harm the economy and livelihood of people. Currently, polls show he has the approval of 93% people in the manner he has handled the Corona challenge. This may dwindle quickly if reparations aren’t undertaken quickly. The statistics in India do not suggest that a national lockdown or a full-fledged extension is justified in any manner whatsoever.

PM Modi now wants Indians to woo firms that exit China – I wonder if that advice is for the corporate sector or for the govt Babus to target such firms. So far, companies exiting China have shown greater preference for Vietnam and Taiwan. There is nothing – no lure, no incentive and no motivation for any company to move to India. Japan has announced a $2 bn incentive for their companies to return to Japan. Commie policies of ModiSarkar have ensured that India is again an unattractive place for investments. FDI is not in great shape and nor is the manufacturing sector. “Make in India” slogan is all but dead. This is the reality that Modi must wake up to. When shops and businesses come out of lockdown it will take them anywhere between 1 to 3 months to return to full strength and productive work. Most shops that have been closed and have perishable goods will have to throw it all away and clean up. Malls may have to be fumigated as they are favourites for rats and other pests. Even postal services, rail services and air services will take a few weeks to return to normal. So, it is not just recovering from the lockdown but return to “normalcy” that will already cost another month or more. Therefore, no further total lockdowns are justified.

Life after Covid will be very different for a long time. There will be a new normal. People must walk around in masks, protect themselves, Public transport must be frequently disinfected. Gloves must be frequently change, they are not permanent all-day protectors. Public places and hospitals will have to be sanitized every single day. Schools have to find new ways of seating children. Sporting events will have to wait at least another year before stadiums can be filled again. Doctors, nurses, health workers, security forces must be given special medical check-ups so that they return to full healthy service. How people will be accommodated in trains and planes is another challenge for the transport system as “Social distancing” will now be a long-term exercise. All these are challenges and people and govts must face them under the new normal without any more lockdowns.

Life cannot come to a standstill. Even otherwise, every time a person goes out, there are attendant risks – known and unknown. Covid is now at least a known risk. People will be mature enough to deal with it and govts too should mature. The Lockdown must be restricted only to the “Red hotspots” and a majority of India must slowly return to normalcy.

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